TR's conservation inspiration threatened by oil boom

A hundred and thirty years ago last month, Theodore Roosevelt arrived in the Dakota Badlands to hunt bison. He was immediately so enchanted with the area’s wilderness and wildlife that he established a ranch there and later started a second one, the Elkhorn Ranch, on the Little Missouri River about 30 miles north of Medora, North Dakota.  Today only the foundation stones of the Elkhorn house remain, but the vistas Roosevelt enjoyed and wrote about are still there—the high, rounded buttes, the sweep of prairie along the snaking river, the whisper of wind among the cottonwoods, the trilling of birds, the silence of star-washed nights.

However, a burgeoning oil industry threatens the integrity of the 218-acre Elkhorn site, which now lies within Theodore Roosevelt National Park, one of North Dakota's biggest tourist attractions. During the past three years, western North Dakota has been transformed from prairie panoramas to petroleum fields in the largest U.S. oil boom since the 1980’s. More than 8,000 wells now hum, rumble, and clank there, spewing flames visible for miles at night. Within a few years, say industry experts, the number could reach 50,000. Much of the national park lies in the path of this relentlessly expanding industry.

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Already the threat has been felt at the former ranch site. Last March, a plan to drill for oil just outside the Elkhorn gate, on land administered by the U.S. Forest Service, was narrowly averted thanks to the voluntary cooperation of XTO Energy, an Exxon-Mobile subsidiary, which dropped the plan when the park superintendent expressed concerns about how the sight and sounds of drilling would affect visitors’ Elkhorn experience.

The North Dakota Industrial Commission recently approved a plan that would prevent oil-drilling activity within 2 miles of the ranch site, a step in the right direction. Other intrusive entities are proving less cooperative. A mining company is threatening to move forward with plans for a gravel mine on 25 acres located a mile from the house site, despite having signed a deal with the Forest Service to swap the potential mine site for federal land at another location. And the chairman of the local county board of supervisors is pushing to span the river 3 miles north of the house site with a bridge that would carry an estimated 1,000 oil-industry trucks daily.

Similar troubles loom over other parks and wildlife refuges abutting lands controlled by federal agencies that emphasize development or multiple uses ranging from hiking to mining and logging. But developing our resources doesn’t require the destruction of wild and historic areas. We can strike a more pragmatic balance between development and other treasured uses of public lands.

To protect places like Theodore Roosevelt National Park, federal land-management agencies need to assess large landscapes and identify potentially low-conflict, high-resource areas for development while protecting high-value conservation lands for their wildlife, cultural or recreational benefits. This approach should be applied to agency planning efforts already under way, not just to new planning efforts.

Oil and mineral rights under federally administered lands surrounding the Roosevelt park and other national parks are managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management, which lies in the Department of the Interior. With the United States poised next year to become the world's largest oil producer outside of OPEC, the Obama administration and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell need to move quickly to ensure a balance that protects special places across the nation. Secretary Jewell could help immediately by issuing a secretarial order affirming the important of balancing energy development with conservation. As Roosevelt put it, “We must have an orderly control over the public domain, so that the natural resources may not be exhausted and destroyed through mob rule..."
 
Di Silvestro is a historian and author of Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands: A Young Politician’s Quest for Recovery in the American West.