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Friends of TRNP consider possible threats

Press Photo by Katherine Grandstrand Clay Jenkinson, author and Theodore Roosevelt historian, addresses a group about the history and possible threats to Theodore Roosevelt National Park's Elkhorn Ranch Unit on Saturday on an expedition to the ranch.

THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK -- While much of Saturday's Theodore Roosevelt National Park Elkhorn Ranch Unit expedition hosted by Friends of TRNP was about experiencing the smallest and least accessible part of park first-hand, it was also about awareness of threats to the historic site that our nation's 26th president once called home.

While the 216 acres that are officially the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of TRNP cannot be touched by any developments, the area surrounding it can, Roosevelt historian and past Friends of TRNP president Clay Jenkinson said Saturday.

"Ninety-four percent of North Dakota is open for development," he said. "There are only a teeny number, maybe less than 10, but of this status, maybe less than five places in North Dakota that are so amazing that, if we could do it, it would be in our interest to try and keep this feel to it forever."

The specific threats are a proposed bridge crossing the Little Missouri River between Watford City and Medora, which would also fall in between the North and South units of the park, hobby ranches in the Badlands, a proposed gravel mine near the site and ever-increasing oil activity, he said.

There are two oil wells visible from just outside the Elkhorn Ranch, one that is very visible and put there in the 1990s, TRNP Superintendent Valerie Naylor said Saturday. The other was set up on the same bluff more recently, but the oil company worked with the park and other officials to camouflage the pumping jack.

"Those are all things that the industry and the forest service work together on, and even the state," North Dakota Petroleum Council President Ron Ness said Monday. "But in essence those things have coexisted out there since 1954."

As far as pure engineering goes, the best place for the proposed bridge is more or less at the Elkhorn Ranch site, but as that land is protected, that place is out of the question, Jenkinson said. There are eight proposed options for the bridge, many of which could be seen or heard from the Elkhorn Ranch Unit.

The proposed gravel mine would be visible from just outside the ranch, but would be audible from the 216 acres while in operation. The U.S. Forrest Service owns the land, but not the mineral rights, which are held in part by Roger Lothspeich of Miles City, Mont.

Lothspeich did not wish to comment when called Monday.

John Dobbins, Dickinson, visited the Elkhorn Ranch Unit with his son, R.J., for the first time Saturday.

"Let's do a little moderation here, slow it down a little bit," he said. "One of our former presidents, his dream home, and now we want to build a road after what you hear about on the oil field highways."

Much of the development, while brought on by the oil boom, is not directly related to the oil industry, Ness said.

"You've got to build that infrastructure in order for things to be more systematic in the approach," he said. "That infrastructure's gotta get built. ... That's the pace that everybody sees and feels is all of the activity, not just the oil activity."

Because TRNP is segmented and because it is small by national park standards, at more than 70,000 acres, it is harder to protect, said Eileen Andes, TRNP chief of interpretation and public affairs Saturday. In comparison, Yellowstone National Park is 2.2 million acres.

The site holds historic significance because Roosevelt sought solace in the isolation of the open prairies and Badlands in 1884 after the Valentine's Day deaths of his mother and his first wife, Jenkinson said. After he came to his first ranch, the Maltese Cross, he found the area too crowded and searched north along the Little Missouri for a quiet, secluded spot. A friend notified him of the Elkhorn Ranch site.

Roosevelt began building a house and other buildings that fall with the intention of staying in Dakota Territory, Jenkinson said. He later went back to New York where he was reacquainted with childhood sweetheart Edith Kermit Carow.

After that he visited the ranch less and less, Jenkinson said. Eventually he stopped coming to the Elkhorn Ranch and the buildings were raised by the turn of the 20th century.

"There are persistent rumors in the Badlands that some of the boards of the Elkhorn are in this ranch or that ranch," he said.

TRNP officials and the Friends of TRNP will continue efforts to preserve the Elkhorn Ranch so future generations can experience the site as Roosevelt did in 1884, Friends President David Nix, Bismarck, said.

"It's actually the most culturally significant site in the park," Andes said Thursday. "And it's one of the most culturally significant sites in North Dakota, as well, and it's really important nationally, as well."

Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
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