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President's vision preserved in park

MEDORA--Theodore Roosevelt said his time in North Dakota made him the man he was, but it's very likely his time in the Badlands spurred the idea of preserving nature across the country.

A lone buffalo roams June 18, 2016, through the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. (April Baumgarten/Forum News Service)
A lone buffalo roams June 18, 2016, through the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. (April Baumgarten/Forum News Service)

MEDORA-Theodore Roosevelt said his time in North Dakota made him the man he was, but it's very likely his time in the Badlands spurred the idea of preserving nature across the country.

"His time here was certainly influential in developing his conservation ethic," said Eileen Andes, chief of interpretation and public affairs for Theodore Roosevelt National Park. "He was in favor of an overall agency to manage the parks."

That agency became the National Park Service, which is celebrating 100 years of preserving natural spaces across the U.S. Though Theodore Roosevelt National Park was not established until 1947, it's the place Roosevelt credited for his success, including his time as the 26th president.

"The mission of the National Park Service centennial is not only to celebrate what we've done in preserving these national parks," Andes said. "Our mission is not only to celebrate our past but to look forward into developing the next generation of park stewards."

The centennial celebration puts Theodore Roosevelt National Park in a position to attract more visitors with extra activities and show them parks are opportunities as educational resources. Art in the Park and the Teddy Bear Picnic in the South Unit are planned for Saturday as a way to attract children to the park.

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"We invite parents and kids to come out and learn how the teddy bear was named after Theodore Roosevelt," she said.

But probably the most anticipated event will come Aug. 25, the day the National Park Service was founded in 1916. The park will release an "America the Beautiful" mint of a quarter for North Dakota, which will feature Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the 26th president.

"That is our big birthday party," she said. "When the mint asked us when they want our quarter released, we said, 'Of course, the 25th. It's a big celebration.'

"We're trying to develop more and more (events). ... We want people to come and get to know their parks."

Conservationist president

The park wasn't officially recognized as a national park until April 25, 1947, when President Harry S. Truman signed a bill that created the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. But the park's history began long before its dedication.

Roosevelt first came to the Badlands in September 1883 to the settlement of Little Missouri, which is now known as Medora. His goal was to hunt American bison, Andes said. He eventually shot a bison, which was one of the last ones on the open range, she said.

What Roosevelt saw changed his views on conservationism, which prompted him to push for legislation that would allow a president to set aside land for preservation.

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"He was able to see with his own eyes overgrazing and its effects," Andes said. "He was able to see with his own eyes the dwindling wildlife population.

"He saw the necessity of management and supporting wildlife population. ... I wouldn't say by the time he left here his conservation ideas were fully evolved, but his time here was definitely influential."

Roosevelt started a ranch about 35 miles north of Medora. The Elkhorn Ranch Unit, which covers 218 acres, is where Roosevelt spent most of the 1880s. And it's where he came to heal from the death of his wife and mother, who died within two days of each other in February 1884.

Known as the "conservationist president," Roosevelt designated 230 million acres of land for preservation, much of which is included in the national park system.

After Roosevelt left North Dakota, locals wanted to preserve the land he loved so dearly.

That came to fruition after several designations. It went through several names until Congress named it the Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park in 1947, making it the only park to have a name of a person. It consisted of three units: the South Unit near Medora, the Elkhorn Ranch and the North Unit, about 15 miles south of Watford City, N.D.

The National Park Service is the only land agency that is dedicated entirely to preservation for future generations, a belief adopted by Roosevelt, Andes said.

"The experience that we try to preserve is one of solitude and quiet because that was one Roosevelt was seeking when he established his ranch," Andes said, adding Roosevelt wrote about listening to the sounds of nature. "We want to preserve that for others to enjoy."

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Importance to North Dakota

The park is North Dakota's largest tourist attraction and welcomes roughly 600,000 visitors each year, said Sara Otte Coleman, director for the state's tourism division. It pulled in more than 580,000 visitors last year, and as of May, it is was about 35 percent ahead of its count from that month last year.

"This May, they had 72,600 visitors, which was an 89 percent increase over May of 2015," Coleman said. "We're on the right trend. We hope it continues."

The three units provide about 500 jobs for North Dakotans, Andes said. Billings County, where Theodore Roosevelt National Park is located, was 14th among counties for visitor spending in 2013, pulling in $65.66 million for tourism in North Dakota. The state as a whole attracts more than $3 billion from tourism, making it the third-largest industry in the state behind oil and agriculture.

The park allows "gateway cities like Medora to build great additional experiences onto that national park experience," Coleman said. Medora and the park contribute to each other's visitors, making them partners in tourism and vital to each other's existence.

"It's still a great, relaxing park," she said. "I think we are really positioning it as one of those relaxing, more natural parks that people will enjoy."

Roosevelt plays a vital role in North Dakota's history, something North Dakotans take pride in. His name can be found on numerous businesses, in public entities and products across the state, showing how important he is to North Dakota's culture.

"There is a really, really strong connection between the people of North Dakota and Theodore Roosevelt," Andes said. "North Dakotans are really proud of their connection to Theodore Roosevelt."

The feeling was mutual for Roosevelt, she added.

"When he spoke of North Dakota, he spoke very fondly of it," she said. "He really enjoyed being a cowboy. He really enjoyed the people here, and he really treasured his time in Dakota Territory."

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