Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch may be spared from encroaching oil development

— October 23, 2013

Dustin Bleizeffer

The grass was tall and the ground was wet in Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the Little Missouri National Grassland in the heart of the Great Plains in North Dakota when I visited in September. The landscape was flush with all variety of game birds: doves and Sharptail grouse — the latter preferring native forbes to various modern farm crops.

There are oil wells throughout the region. Sometimes three pumpjacks on a single pad. It’s impossible to tell, from farm house to farm house, whether some of the new toys — all-terrain Razors, track-propelled tractors — are the spoils of new oil royalties or successful farming, or both.

I’d arrived in Bismarck a day early for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s western media summit so I could take a driving tour with Ed Arnett, director of the organization’s Center for Responsible Energy Development. We were joined by reporter Amy Joi O’Donoghue of Deseret News in Utah and Hal Herring, an outdoors writer from Montana. We set out early on a Monday morning to see some of the Bakken oil development that approaches the outer regions of the national park and national grassland.

The landscape in and around the Theodore Roosevelt National Park is prime habitat for wildlife. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

These protected areas are far from the heart of dense oil development north of Williston where companies are experimenting with 160-acre spacing — converting large landscapes from agriculture to what can be classified as industrial. But there’s drilling 100 miles away, too, on large crop farms and in the breaks country where bentonite stacks stand over ravines filled with big sage, chokecherry, juniper and snowberry bushes. This is prime game bird habitat, and it was torture for Arnett and Herring — two game bird hunting enthusiasts — to witness these prime hunting grounds without their shotguns.

As we ventured down a newly manicured gravel road on a ridge-top we spotted a new oil pumpjack on a moderately-sized pad, situated against a hillside. From this vantage point, it was well-camouflaged. “Now, I can live with that,” said Arnett. “This is reasonable.”

We got out and scanned the landscape from a vantage point that looked over a maze of draws that define the steep, gray breaks in all directions, and across several juniper-lined ridges. Oil wells here appeared to be on 640-acre spacing, carefully placed on ridge-tops where pumpers have fairly easy access to the wells without having to drive through steep terrain that is often muddy from ample rain this year.

Arnett, as one could easily imagine, is a big fan of Theodore Roosevelt and his pioneering conservation work that serves as the hallmark to public lands access and the American outdoors culture. So our first destination was Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch. We drove a dirt road — it was dry enough for the SUV rental — down into a valley where there’s a parking area, then began slopping our way down a damp foot-trail through tall grass.

After a short walk we discovered a couple of fenced-in areas, the largest we determined to be the former site of Roosevelt’s ranch house. There were absolutely no remnants of the structure. We read the interpretive signs at the location detailing the layout of the ranch and Roosevelt’s time there.

Roosevelt wrote in his memoirs in 1887, “My home ranch lies on both sides of the Little Missouri, the nearest ranch man above me being about twelve, and the nearest below me about ten, miles distant.”

Ed Arnett of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership stands upon a rock at the Elkhorn Ranch in North Dakota. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

We found a few stakes in the ground that mark the historic location. Then it dawned on us; five or six large flat-top rocks were set about the area. Surely these were part of the landscaping in front of the former ranch house. We immediately stood upon the rocks and scanned the view, imagining Roosevelt had done the same from atop these rocks.

It’s fun to wonder what must have gone through the minds of Native Americans and our forefathers as they stood in the same cherished outdoors that we do today.

For Arnett, the experience really meant something. And as my media colleagues and I returned to the interpretive signs to read some more details, Arnett remained there, on a rock that Roosevelt must have stood upon long ago.

Before leaving, we all took time to scan the 360-degree panorama, and I took special care to check those ridge tops. Sure enough, there was a pumpjack, rocking up and down — tiny, but a perfect silhouette in view from Roosevelt’s former ranch home. Fortunately, it was powered by silent electricity rather than one of those old Ajax combustion units that cough, cough, cough, and can be heard for miles.

A new oil pumpjack rocks several miles from Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch in North Dakota. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

Later, Arnett addressed the media summit attendees and offered Wyoming’s Jonah natural gas field as a “poster child” for the type of single-use that the sportsmen community wants to avoid. Arnett noted that there’s no real strategic plan for the Bakken oil play, no environmental impact statement guiding a comprehensive landscape scale management plan.

The same can be said of areas in Wyoming — particularly the emerging oil play in the Powder River Basin. Although the Powder River Basin is known worldwide as one of America’s premier fossil fuel producers, there are cherished cultural sites there, too. Not the least of which is the Pumpkin Buttes.

Arnett and others who want to see the cultural and recreation resources of the Elkhorn Ranch and the greater Theodore Roosevelt National Park region protected from industrial scale oil development got some good news this week. Mike Nowatzki at the Forum News Service reports that the North Dakota Industrial Commission voted in favor of a plan that would keep industrial drilling about 2 miles from the Elkhorn Ranch. The story quotes park superintendent Valerie Naylor; “I think in order to protect these important cultural and natural sites in western North Dakota, we all need to work together and we need to be creative.”

— Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief. You can reach him at (307) 267-3327 or email dustin@wyofile.com. Follow Dustin on Twitter at @DBleizeffer

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Dustin Bleizeffer

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 22 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. Jenny Buddenborg, senior field officer for the National Trust For Historic Preservation, wrote to inform me that those large rocks we stood upon were actually part of the foundation for the home. Oh well, it was still fun to image. Buddenborg also notes that despite the North Dakota Industrial Commission’s vote earlier this week, there still is no comprehensive siting rule in place to prohibit drilling within 2 miles of the Elkhorn Ranch site. So the work to balance resources there continues. Thanks for the info, Jenny. — Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile editor-in-chief