Sierra Club Home Page   Environmental Update  
chapter button
Explore, enjoy and protect the planet
Click here to visit the Member Center.         
Take Action
Get Outdoors
Join or Give
Inside Sierra Club
Press Room
Politics & Issues
Sierra Magazine
Sierra Club Books
Apparel and Other Merchandise
Contact Us

Join the Sierra ClubWhy become a member?

  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2008
Table of Contents
Ice Manliness Cometh
A Six-Dog-Power Engine
I (Heart) Snowshoeing
Skiing Yellowstone
Welcome Back to the World
Rotten Fish Tales
Big Fun in the Green Zone
Hey Mr. Green
Comfort Zone
Mixed Media
Last Words
Sierra Archives
About Sierra
Internships at Sierra
Advertising Information
Current Advertisers
Click here for more information

Sierra Magazine

Printer-friendly format
click here to tell a friend

Beauty & the Badlands

In a state where George Bush sees oil, Teddy Roosevelt found immensity and mystery.

by Bill Donahue

Just beyond Bismarck, as the train chugged west over the prairie, spitting little black clouds of soot into the sky, the land suddenly changed. On the east side of the Missouri River, the Dakota plains had been unbroken—green and dull and flat as a pool table. Now there were sharp ravines and barren gray slopes and narrow red spires looming above a clay basin that had, for 600 millennia, been eroded by rivers and wind. The badlands: Here was that infamous swath of dry terrain that encompasses both prairie flats and jagged gulches as it stretches through the westernmost reaches of Nebraska and the Dakotas.

One can imagine the young Harvard grad on the train—the slight, bespectacled fellow in the black derby—peering out at the rough land with apprehension, and with such awe that the little hairs in his mustache quavered. In 1883, Theodore Roosevelt was not yet the hearty, monocle-wearing honcho we have immortalized as "TR." No, at 24, he was rather a green New York state assemblyman who was still recovering from a childhood plagued by cholera morbus, and he’d come out to the Dakota Territory with boyish notions of shooting a buffalo.

Over the next month in what is today North Dakota, Roosevelt was to experience all the Wild West thrills he craved. He rode horseback through rolling hills of silver sage. He hunted deer in the pelting rain, got tangled up in a cactus, and then shot his buffalo and, in gleeful celebration, performed an Indian war dance over the carcass. By the end of the month, Roosevelt was so enchanted with the badlands that he bought 500 head of cattle to graze by the banks of the Little Missouri River.

And then he began coming west whenever his legislature wasn’t in session, spending a week, maybe two weeks at a time in the Territory and living in robust blue-blood splendor. Roosevelt had some locals build him a cabin. He helped his ranchhands herd cattle through the plains’ swirling dust, and as his holdings grew to include two ranches and 5,000 head, he slowly transformed from a blind romantic into a seasoned outdoorsman who loves the land because he knows it. He sat before a crackling fire, atop a bearskin rug, and wrote of the great out-of-doors—of, for instance, the "immensity and mystery" of the wilderness and of the Little Missouri, which, "in times of freshets runs a muddy torrent that neither man nor beast can pass."

Such words, recorded in six books that Roosevelt wrote about the Dakota Territory, would become a sort of soundtrack to his presidency, which lasted from 1901 to 1909. The first conservationist to occupy the Oval Office, TR established the Forest Service, placed vast quantities of coal and mineral deposits under federal control, created 16 national monuments, and doubled the number of national parks, adding among others Mesa Verde and Crater Lake. All the while, he remembered his time in the Territory as formative, character building. "I never would have become president," he once said, "if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota." The Territory was the place where he first established his own empire, 1,500 miles removed from his aristocratic clan in Manhattan, and it was the place where he learned to lasso a bull.

Roosevelt’s stint as a Dakota cattleman lasted only four years (he called it quits after the brutal winter of 1886–87 killed hundreds in his herd), but today, if you visit the Little Missouri National Grasslands, a Delaware-size swath of North Dakota badlands that is managed by the Forest Service, it’s as though TR never left. The 70,000-acre Theodore Roosevelt National Park adjoins the Grasslands, and in the tourist town of Medora, the play Bully, a hagiographic drama about TR, is staged in his honor daily.

The myth is that western North Dakota is still the rugged, unvanquished place that shaped our most rugged president. But the truth is that Teddy Roosevelt’s old stomping ground is in trouble—threatened by both cattle ranching and oil drilling.

Fifty-four thousand cows now graze on the Little Missouri National Grasslands on an average summer day. They chew the range, often, until the grass is little more than stubble, and all around them are roads, many of them built by the oil industry. In 1950 oil was discovered under the Grasslands, which sit atop a relict seabed, and tankers and servicemen have been rumbling into the backcountry ever since. There are 3,000 miles of roads on the Grasslands now, and 600 operational wells. Amerada Hess, Burlington Resources, and myriad smaller oil companies are collectively extracting 30,000 barrels a day. And if the current administration gets its way, the Grasslands will soon see more oil production, more roads, more gravel drilling pads, and more oil trucks.

President Bush’s energy plan is premised on the assumption that America "faces the most serious energy shortage since the oil embargoes of the 1970s." It eschews conservation and calls instead for the development of new oil fields. Bush is most intent on tapping a potential 600,000 barrels of crude a day from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But as our relations with Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing nations become more tenuous, he’s turning with increased thirst toward lower-profile sources of fuel: the Gulf of Mexico, the Rocky Mountain Front, and the Little Missouri Grasslands.

The Forest Service estimates that an unfettered oil industry could plant up to 600 new wells on the Little Missouri National Grasslands over the next decade, and the agency now seems poised to help make that prospect a reality. Last August, after completing the usual public-input process, which resulted in a Grasslands plan that banned roadbuilding on 130,000 acres and limited grazing, the Forest Service made a rare gesture: It gave the public six additional months to comment on the final document. The move was a boon to North Dakota’s oilmen and ranchers. The 200-page plan crafted during the last eco-friendly days of the Clinton administration was suddenly open to revision by the aides of President Bush.

The Forest Service is expected to produce the final final management plan this spring. And even if the new document still designates 130,000 acres as roadless, an unlikely outcome, it will only protect the land until a new management plan is enacted 10 to 15 years hence.

Wayde Schafer, the conservation organizer for the Sierra Club in North Dakota, is concerned. "The grasslands," he explains, "were once unbroken from Canada to Texas. The great cattle drives came up through the grasslands of Texas, all the way to the Dakotas, and the Oregon Trail went through here, and the trail to the California gold rush. But today roads, cities, and agricultural fields have fragmented the grasslands almost beyond recognition. Just a few large tracts remain."

This spring, the Sierra Club, along with North Dakota Wildlife and the North Dakota–based Badlands Conservation Alliance, will publish a report urging that 218,000 acres of the Little Missouri National Grasslands be designated as wilderness and thereby permanently protected from roadbuilding. The report will also suggest that 15 miles of the Little Missouri River be protected as "wild" and 6 as "scenic."

The proposals face an uphill battle. While 87 percent of all North Dakotans want wilderness on the Grasslands (according to an independent poll commissioned by the Sierra Club in 1999), the state’s two senators—Democrats Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan—are beholden to the ranch vote. They’re loath to recommend the Grasslands for such a set-aside.

"Getting wilderness designation won’t be easy," Schafer concedes, "but that doesn’t make it any less worthy a goal. People need to have refuges they can visit to re-create their sense of place. They need to be able to go out onto the Grasslands, into rough country, and experience what Roosevelt did: the strong wind, the sun, a test of one’s mettle."

Ah yes, a test! I knew what that word meant, precisely, on the evening I landed in western North Dakota. It was raining. Indeed, the region was in the midst of one of its wettest Junes on record. The dirt roads leading northwest from Medora were at times a slippery gumbo, but I pressed on, through darkness, until I came to an absurdly slick hill and began fishtailing down, toward a cluster of juniper bushes. I parked and shouldered my backpack. Then I walked barefoot across the Little Missouri. The muddy water tore at my shins and chunks of junipers gushed in the current; I anchored my feet on the bottom and made it to the other side.

Here I was, at last, at the site of Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch. The old cabin was gone, thanks to a circa-1900 fire, but the wind’s wild rustling of the cottonwoods conjured a sentence from TR’s Hunting Trips of a Ranchman: "From [Elkhorn’s] low, long verandah, shaded by leafy cottonwoods, one looks across sandbars and shallows to a strip of meadowlands."

I warmed a tin of Dinty Moore beef stew (the most Rooseveltian meal I could muster under the circumstances) and then went to sleep.

In the morning, I set off on a walk beside the Little Missouri. On the hillside above, there was an oil-drilling rig: a 100-foot-high tower affixed with lights that pulsed silver.

Beneath me as I hiked was a 60-foot-wide current that was vital now in the rain—flooding sandy bottoms, babbling over small stones, and lapping at tree trunks as it bore a brown cloud of silt away. I watched the river. It looked, I imagined, more or less like the river Roosevelt saw each spring when he arrived from New York. As I sloshed along, shivering (it was 50 degrees out, and so windy the rain hit my face at an angle), I remembered how TR, whose cattle drank from the river, saw the Little Missouri as central. "The river flows in long sigmoid curves," he wrote, "through an alluvial valley of no great width. From the edges of the valley, the land rises abruptly in steep high buttes. This broken country extends back from the river for many miles. Every few miles, it is crossed by creeks that open into the Little Missouri, some of them having in their beds here and there a never-failing spring or muddy alkaline-water hole. From these creeks run coulees, or narrow, winding valleys, through which water flows when the snow melts; their bottoms contain patches of brush, and they lead back into the heart of the Bad Lands."

Roosevelt apprehended the river as a geological force—the same force I watched carving the ravine a little bit deeper as I stood there, getting drenched. On the hillside, lights flashed and men in yellow slickers hurried about the base of the drill, checking its progress.

Up to Top | Beauty & the Badlands | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4