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National Park Service turns 102 amid $11 billion funding backlog

The Theodore Roosevelt National Park headquarters in Medora celebrates the National Park Service's 102 year anniversary. James B. Miller, Jr. / The Dickinson Press

The Cannonball Concretions Pullout is an iconic symbol of Theodore Roosevelt National Park's landscape, formed through centuries of sand grains dissolving and cementing with minerals found in groundwater. These "cannonballs" have been here longer than the National Park Service, which turns 102 today.

On this anniversary of the National Park Service's founding, they invite the community to "discover something new at 102."

Theodore Roosevelt National Park welcomes nearly 600,000 visitors each year, and National Park Service projections forecast nationwide park attendance this year topping 350 million for the first time — a 20 million increase over last year.

Increased attendance at parks comes with some drawbacks, as aging park facilities incur further wear and tear.

"National parks have never been fully funded," said Eileen Andes, chief of interpretation and public affairs at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. "We partner with philanthropic organizations like the National Park Foundation and our cooperating association. There are things that we do that we couldn't accomplish without their help, as is the case with most parks."

President Trump proposed legislation establishing a Public Lands Infrastructure Fund which seeks to address the $11.6 billion maintenance backlog facing the National Park System. Under the new legislation, nearly $18 billion would go toward repairs and improvements across the National Park System, national wildlife refuges and the Bureau of Indian Education.

"We need to rebuild our parks," Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said at a press conference in February. "Our parks are being loved to death."

The Theodore Roosevelt National Park is unique among national parks as its three discontiguous pieces are separated by long stretches along the Little Missouri River. The South Unit near Medora, the North Unit 15 miles south of Watford City and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit comprise the park's 70,000 acres.

"In this park, the vast majority of our maintenance backlogs are road repairs," Andes said. "It's because the Badlands erode quickly and so it's really hard to maintain the roads."

Despite national backlogs, Theodore Roosevelt National Park personnel maintain one of the most scenic and diverse national parks in the nation, according to a poll conducted by the Public Broadcasting Service.

"Parks aren't only important for protecting resources — they are places where people can get outdoors, connect with nature, unplug and get off the screen," Andes said. "It's an inexpensive place to come and learn not only about the park and its resources, wildlife and history—but you can learn something about yourself."

President Theodore Roosevelt came to the North Dakota Badlands in September 1883. Five months later his wife, Alice, and his mother died on the same day. Grief stricken, Roosevelt sought solace in his secluded cabin on Elkhorn Ranch.

"For Theodore Roosevelt, the badlands was a place where he could heal," Andes said. "Sometimes people need to get away from the hectic nature of life and come to a place where they can relax, breath and find solitude. That's what the parks do on a whole."

For more information on the Theodore Roosevelt National Park or the National Park Service, visit