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Oil company stakes out area for well pads steps away from Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch

Courtesy Photo by Chad Sexton A center-stake flag for a well pad stands about 1,000 feet to the south of the Elkhorn Ranch parking lot on March 16. The juniper and cottonwood trees are within the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The sights and sounds of industrial oil drilling could soon be just steps away from one of North Dakota's most treasured historic landmarks.

XTO Energy, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil Corp., has staked out an area that is as close as 100 feet from a fence separating U.S. Forest Service land from the 218-acre Elkhorn Ranch site in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, TRNP officials said Monday.

An application to develop two sections of land and "not more than four well sites" near the ranch site where Theodore Roosevelt once lived was received by the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources Oil and Gas Division on Feb. 22. Case No. 19996 is scheduled to go before the division and director Lynn Helms on March 28.

"The stakes put in to delineate an access path to one of the proposed well pads are about 100 feet west of the existing parking lot to the Elkhorn Ranch," said Chad Sexton, a TRNP Geographical Information Systems Analyst who visited the site Saturday. "The area is a big sagebrush flat within the same flood plain of the Elkhorn Ranch. Basically, the site is right adjacent to the ranch site. If you build an energy development and have all the structures that would be vertical, that would all be very visible from the Elkhorn Ranch."

TRNP attorneys have been in contact with state legal representatives and it is possible the park could bring forth opposition to the proposed development site, said DMR spokesperson Alison Ritter. If opposition is raised to the XTO pad sites, the matter would automatically move to the state's Industrial Commission for final approval.

Nestled along the banks of the Little Missouri River and surrounded by a hodgepodge of national park, state park and U.S. Forest Service land, the Elkhorn Ranch was created by and became a refuge of sorts for Roosevelt.

Following a string of personal losses -- including the deaths of his wife and mother on the same day -- Roosevelt settled at the ranch site in 1884, staying at the compound off and on for several years before eventually becoming one of the most beloved and well-known presidents in U.S. history.

In his writings, Roosevelt remembered his time at the Elkhorn Ranch warmly, referring to the site as his "home" and even going so far as to write that he wouldn't have become president if it weren't for his time in the North Dakota Badlands.

"The Elkhorn Ranch is one of the most important places not only in North Dakota, but in America," said Clay Jenkinson, a Dickinson native and Theodore Roosevelt historian and author. "I see this as a real test of our character as a state and as a people. This is a shrine to one of the Rushmore four and someone who is widely considered one of the top five presidents in U.S. history. This is where Theodore Roosevelt became Theodore Roosevelt and if ever there was a sacred place in North Dakota, this would be it."

The total XTO spacing unit encompasses nearly 1,300-ares of Forest Service land approximately 35 miles north of Medora.

When contacted by The Dickinson Press on Monday, a representative of the Forest Service deferred questions to spokesperson Babete Anderson, who did not immediately return messages.

"We are currently working with the U.S. Forest Service to identify an appropriate site and have reviewed more than one option with them," XTO spokesperson Emily Snooks said in a statement. "Our priority is, and will remain, to ensure the safety of the community, our employees and contract personnel, and to protect the environment."

Saying it would be a mistake to blame energy companies for attempting to develop sites that have not been placed off limits, Jenkinson said the area immediately surrounding the Elkhorn Ranch should have already been placed on a no-drill list.

"We can't say 'how dare you' to the oil company now," Jenkinson said. "They're doing what carbon extraction industries do. They can't know what we value, only we can tell them what we as North Dakotans value. If we choose not to spare this, it means we choose, as a people, to not spare anything. I can't think of one single thing that could be put forward by anyone as more worthy of being spared than Roosevelt's North Dakota home -- this is our one big national place of presidential prestige."

Two existing oil wells can be seen from the Elkhorn Ranch site today. According to TRNP officials, they lobbied successfully to camouflage one so that it is barely visible from the ranch site.

Once home to several buildings -- including the small home that was constructed out of cottonwood trees -- the ranch site now is home only to the foundation of Roosevelt's former dwelling.

"We are very concerned about any potential oil drilling in the immediate vicinity of the Elkhorn Ranch, which is culturally the most important part of the park," TRNP spokesperson Eileen Andes said. "This would be catastrophic for the Elkhorn Ranch. Roosevelt went to the ranch for solitude and healing and the site still offers that same solitude today. It's pretty much the same place from when he was there."

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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