Roosevelt's Retreat at Elkhorn Ranch in North Dakota

An oil boom and its associated development threaten the Elkhorn Ranch, where Theodore Roosevelt developed his conservation ethic.

In June of 1884 Theodore Roosevelt rode out into the North Dakota Badlands, seeking to leave behind not just civilization but his entire life so far.

He traveled for more than 30 miles along the meandering Little Missouri River, deep into a phantasmagorical landscape of multicolored buttes and twisted gorges, riding ever farther from the faint strands of settlement that had reached into this largely untrammeled country until he came to a spot where the rough terrain opened into a flat stretch of rich bottomland. The river stood to the east, and to the west magnificent bluffs ringed the land in a semicircle, as if he had stumbled into a hidden amphitheater of the Gods.

Here Roosevelt would build a ranch, naming it Elkhorn after a pair of elk skulls with interlocked horns found on the site—the sign of a battle to the death. Here he would rebuild his own life after a family tragedy, a struggle that to him came with the same stakes. “Here,” he later wrote, “the romance of my life began.”

After nearly 130 years, the Elkhorn Ranch site appears much as it did when Roosevelt found it. Yet all around it a well-publicized oil boom is remaking western North Dakota. The 218-acre site is surrounded by land that could be drilled or otherwise developed. Possibilities include wells looming over the ranch and a bridge spanning the river within view. The threat of inappropriate development near the Elkhorn, where Roosevelt’s preservation and conservation ethic was born, prompted the National Trust for Historic Pres­ervation to designate the site as one of its National Treasures—historic places of national significance where the National Trust is acting to ensure thought­ful preservation.

In an effort to protect the landscape surrounding the ranch, the National Trust has partnered with the National Parks Conservation Association, a citizens group that advocates for the parks; the Boone & Crock­ett Club; and the Theodore Roosevelt Association, and is working with other national, state, and local environ­mental and preservation groups.

“There is a window of opportunity here,” says Jenny Buddenborg, a senior field officer in the National Trust’s Denver office. “The threat of incompatible development is real and immedi­ate, but the rapid, widespread oil and gas development in the region has not yet reached as far south as the Elkhorn Ranch landscape to the same degree that it has just to the north. We are working with a landscape that has been impacted by this incompatible development to a degree, but not irreparably so, and we’re hoping to keep it that way.”

Protecting the site will not only preserve a spot of natural beauty in a unique and endangered Western landscape, it will preserve a place that provides im­portant insight into the character of a president who played a key role in the conservation and the preserva­tion movements. “I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota,” Roosevelt would say. If that is true, then his path to the Oval Office started at the Elkhorn Ranch.

The 26-year-old who got on his horse that June and headed into the Badlands—a country once described as “hell with the fires put out”—wasn’t yet the Teddy Roosevelt of popular imagination, the bull-necked, broad-shouldered Rough Rider who would seize the public’s affections much the way he stormed up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War. This Teddy Roosevelt was bespectacled, asthmatic, and slight, a son of privilege and a bit of an Eastern dandy. But most significantly, he was a broken man.

On the previous Valentine’s Day, his mother and young bride had both died unexpectedly within hours of each other. The event so traumatized Roosevelt he would find it almost impossible to talk about even de­cades later. He headed west, proclaiming his intention to give up his budding political career and settle into life as a rancher. What he was really looking for was something more profound. “He was seeking a place to grieve,” says Clay Jenkinson, a North Dakota historian and author. “He wanted solitude.”

He stayed first in a cabin at the Maltese Cross Ranch, about seven miles from the town of Medora, which he had invested in during an earlier hunting trip. But the Maltese Cross was on a path traveled by cowpokes and others, and even a few visitors a week was more than the normally gregarious Roosevelt wanted to deal with.

The Elkhorn provided the space he craved. Still, he would not live completely alone there, calling on two Maine woodsmen he knew well to move west and help build a large ranch house, roughly 60 feet by 30 feet, along with a blacksmith shop, corrals, and a walled-in dugout along the bank of the river. The house included a broad veranda facing the Little Missouri where Roosevelt liked to settle into a rocking chair at the end of a hard day in the saddle.

“Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough,” he would write. And his answer to his grief was to push it aside through relentless work. Of course, being Teddy Roosevelt, notes Jenkinson, “he also wanted to kill big game animals.” He sought to divert his mind through long hunts across the rough country where he drove himself to the edge of exhaustion.

The final part of his self-administered therapy came through his pen, as he poured out observations about the countryside and its residents that would form the heart of several books. In Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail, and particularly his four-volume history The Winning of the West, Roosevelt helped to create what would become a popular notion of the Old West. In all of his books, he would draw on his time at the Elkhorn for inspiration.

His experiences changed him profoundly, strengthening both his body and mind. During the four years he called the Elkhorn his home, Roosevelt tracked thieves and brought them to justice, faced down frontier toughs, rode as much as 100 miles in a day, and spent as long as 40 hours straight in the saddle.

“It certainly knocked a lot of the veneer of Eastern elitism off of him,” says Tweed Roosevelt, president of the Theodore Roosevelt Association and great-grandson of the former U.S. president. He developed a new appreciation for the plain-spoken, hard-working folks around him. “It also taught him something about himself,” Roosevelt says. “He rolled up his sleeves and worked as hard as anyone, and he gained the respect of this tough group of people.”

His time at the Elkhorn broadened his perspective in another critical way. Roosevelt had always been a close observer of nature, writing lyrically about ev­erything from bird song to the color of the hills at sun­set. But as he witnessed the disappearance of the buf­falo and other wildlife in the Badlands, his thoughts evolved to encompass the necessity of protecting the natural world he loved.

In 1887, after a trip to the Dakotas, he called friends together in New York to found the Boone & Crockett Club, an early organization dedicated to conserving wildlife and its habitat. “He cared about [conservation] from a hunter’s point of view to begin with,” Tweed Roosevelt says, “but then he became interested from a much larger perspective. It was very important to his development as a conservationist.”

The Elkhorn has been called “the Walden Pond of the West” for the role it played in Roosevelt’s evolution. Yet now the ranch is threatened by a wave of development far larger than anything Roosevelt saw in his time in the Badlands.

Western North Dakota has experienced smaller oil booms in the past, but until recently, the land still carried with it a sense of beautiful, mysterious emptiness. Today, much of it resembles a construction site. In the last three years the entire region has been transformed by the biggest oil boom in the nation. The once-lonely highways that cross the region are busy with trucks and heavy equipment, and the landscape is dotted with towering drilling rigs that look like something out of a science fiction movie. More than 8,000 wells are pumping oil. That number is expected to climb to somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 within a few years.

There is no doubt the boom has brought new pros­perity to the state, and many Dakotans consider it a blessing. Yet the boom is changing the area in ways other residents are struggling with. For more than 100 years Dan Kalil’s family has been farming and ranch­ing near Williston, north of the Elkhorn in the heart of the development. “Try to imagine that every morning when you get up and look out your back window, there’s somebody new in your backyard,” Kalil says. “That’s what’s happened in western North Dakota. We’ve lost our solitude. Our privacy.”

Theodore Roosevelt National Park—which consists of two large units, north and south, and the much smaller Elkhorn Ranch unit between them—is protected. But the land surrounding the park is largely open to drilling. “The North Unit is in the path of development, and it’s heading toward the South Unit, too,” says Val­erie Naylor, park superintendent.

The Elkhorn is particularly vulnerable. At just slightly larger than one third square mile, there would be no escaping the sights and sounds of development anywhere near the ranch boundaries.

Even now, several wells pump alongside winding Bell Lake Road, which leads to the ranch. From the ranch itself, only one is now faintly visible along the ridge of one of the buttes ringing the river bottom. But there was almost one much closer. “A well was staked out right here,” Naylor says, pointing to a spot only yards away from the simple hand gate that leads into the ranch where XTO Energy, a subsidiary of Exxon-Mobil, had prepared to drill.

That well was halted, at least temporarily, when Naylor contacted the Forest Service, on whose land it was located, and XTO agreed to look for a different site, although still nearby. The possibility captured the public’s attention, including that of North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, a strong supporter of the oil industry, who expressed his doubts about drilling that close to the Elkhorn. But the land surrounding the ranch re­mains mostly open to development.

“There could be oil wells perched on those buttes,” Naylor says, on a bright, blustery day at the Elkhorn with the broad, flat river sparkling in the sun and the hills so sharp they seem cut out of the sky.

All that remains of Roosevelt’s house are the foun­dation stones, still clearly visible among the prairie grass. But it’s easy to stroll across the site and picture him standing there, deciding this is where he would make a new beginning. The sense of distance, the sense of space, the sense of a place where one would have the peace and solitude to think, remain the same.

Naylor says the ranch is often visited by people who make the trek just to see the place where Roosevelt developed his conservation ethos. The Park Service’s goal is to maintain the site—by working with surrounding landowners—as it was when Roosevelt first made his long ride out, not just the spot itself, but the views, the sounds, the things that drew him here. “He would have heard the river,” she says. “He would have listened to the birds. He wrote a lot about bird song. Another two weeks and this place will be an orchestra of birds… I know if he was here, he’d recognize this place.”

Oil wells aren’t the only threat to the Elkhorn. There were plans to put a gravel pit across the river, where it would have been plainly visible from the ranch. One county commissioner, in particular, has been pushing for years for a bridge across the Little Missouri, also within clear view of the ranch. The prospective gravel pit owner has agreed to consider a different site and the bridge faces environmental review and other procedural hurdles, but as oil development grows ever more frantic, the pressure on all of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is likely to increase.

Yet even in pro-development North Dakota, peo­ple are having second thoughts. The state industrial commission, which consists of the governor, attorney general, and agriculture commissioner, recently announced plans to compile a list of culturally impor­tant sites that should be protected from oil develop­ment. The possibility of a well at the doorstep of the Elkhorn Ranch was one of the motivations for the project. “I think this could be the tipping point,” says Kalil. “People [in North Dakota] are very proud of the time he spent here, especially in the west. We are the Rough Rider state.”

Buddenborg says the National Trust and its partners plan to hire a grassroots organizer to increase public awareness of the threat to the ranch, and build support for saving it. They plan to focus particularly in the Red River Valley in eastern North Dakota. Though it’s nearly 300 miles from the oil fields, it’s where the bulk of the state’s population resides.

Tweed Roosevelt, who has visited the Badlands many times, says his great-grandfather would recognize the struggle, pitting a grassroots effort against powerful economic forces: “It’s another example of the perpetual battle, the bal­ance between development and preservation. It’s al­ways a matter of where you draw the line. It will go on forever and it should.”

With more than 200 oil industry firms of all kinds now operating in western North Dakota and new wells being drilled every day, the development pres­sure around the Elkhorn will be intense. “The challenge for those who believe in conservation and pres­ervation is to keep fighting,” says Roosevelt, sounding a bit like his famous ancestor, who never shied away from a fight he believed in.

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