February 17, 2014

Honoring a President and His Legacy: Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch

A protestor in Dickinson, N.D., shows his support for Elkhorn Ranch. Credit: ScottDRC, Photobucket
A protestor in Dickinson, N.D., shows his support for Elkhorn Ranch.

A landscape of great historical significance and stunning natural beauty sits amid the country’s largest energy boom: Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch in North Dakota’s Badlands. The Bakken Formation, which covers most of western North Dakota, has triggered an oil and natural gas boom that is rapidly encroaching on the Elkhorn Ranch and the unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in which the landscape sits.

Theodore Roosevelt first traveled to the Dakota Badlands in the 1880s in the aftermath of the sudden death of his mother and wife on Valentine’s Day in 1884. He was so taken by the area that he invested in two ranches, making the Elkhorn Ranch his ranch home.

It was here that he first witnessed the rapid degradation of America's wilderness and wildlife, and grasped the importance of conserving such national resources. Roosevelt said of Elkhorn, “I never would have been President if it had not been for my experience in North Dakota.”

The oil well shown here is along the road that leads to the Elkhorn Ranch. Credit: Kyler Deutmeyer
The oil well shown here is along the road that leads to the Elkhorn Ranch.

Fracking and other extractions, such as gravel mining, pose a grave threat to the sanctity and integrity of the landscape that shaped our 26th president. The heavy equipment and 24-hour trucking that is part and parcel of this industry creates road noise, pollution and dust, and requires infrastructure such as bridges and roads, all of which threaten the very air, water, wildlife and land that made such an impression on Roosevelt.

This prompted the National Trust to name the Elkhorn Ranch to our 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list in 2012. We’ve since added the site to our portfolio of National Treasures -- places of great historic significance where we are making a deep and long-term investment in their preservation.

Although Roosevelt lived at the ranch only a short time, and the log house and scores of cattle that once grazed there are long gone, the importance of this land in transforming a grieving man seeking solace in the North Dakota grasslands into one of our country’s greatest champions of conservation cannot be overstated.

A group gathers in Bismarck, N.D., to help save Elkhorn Ranch.

Today, we are engaged in an ongoing campaign with partners including the Dakota Resource Council and National Parks Conservation Association to provide long-term protection to Elkhorn Ranch from incompatible development. While we recognize that the oil and gas industry is an important part of North Dakota’s economy, a site of such historic and cultural significance deserves our best efforts at preservation.

The next few months will see the National Trust and its partners closely watching a gravel pit proposal that could disrupt the Elkhorn Ranch and surrounding lands, and continuing to build important relationships with decision-makers to ensure that Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch maintains its qualities as a place for escape and solitude. Stay tuned to SavingPlaces.org for updates on our effort to protect this landscape from harm.

This Preservation Month, take action to save, celebrate, and discover places that reflect the breadth of American history.

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