Sierra Magazine

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.

Just as I was leaving the Elkhorn, the rain stopped. I cracked the car window and the smell of wet sage wafted in as I drove east 20 miles, to the town of Grassy Butte, to meet with the man who is arguably the most stalwart advocate for wilderness on the Grasslands, John Heiser.

Heiser, 51, is a fourth-generation Dakota rancher; he founded the Badlands Conservation Alliance three years ago. Just before I got to North Dakota, Heiser had defended his campaign for wilderness by telling the Associated Press, "There are things that need to be said, and I’ve said them, and now my neighbors won’t talk to me." In the picture that ran next to the quote, Heiser was lean with a rough, wind-weathered face and cool blue eyes that were piercing in their conviction. I felt like I was paying a visit to a sort of grasslands Thoreau.

The first thing Heiser wanted to show me, once I rattled into his driveway, was the pasture where the vesper sparrows had built their nest and laid eggs early that spring. The eggs were still there—brown-speckled, oblong little things in the wheat grass—and Heiser expected them to fledge in a couple of weeks. "I never drive in here," he said, striding beside me in worn denim coveralls. "I don’t like to drive on wild grass."

Heiser’s voice was deep and unfaltering and he seemed to revel in making absolute statements. I guessed that he probably never fit in too well with North Dakota’s rock-ribbed mainstream. "No," he said, "when I was a kid and my dad cut down green ash to make fence posts, I felt sad for the dead trees." Heiser deepened his ecological ethic after college when he took a job herding bison for Theodore Roosevelt National Park. "I chased them on horseback," he said, "sometimes for twenty miles at a dead run. I grew to respect them. Bison are independent. They have fire in their eyes. They resist being tamed."

We walked on and Heiser pointed out the western wallflowers underfoot, and the prairie smoke, a flower whose thin, hairlike fruits look, collectively, like a red mist. Heiser’s cows plodded nearby in the blue grama grass. He has 95 head on his 760 acres, and caring for them is hard work. Heiser doesn’t use a backhoe to muck out the corral where he winters his yearlings; he uses a wheelbarrow. He doesn’t use a pickup to check on his cattle either. Instead, he goes from pasture to pasture on horseback or, more frequently, on foot.

Heiser’s whole ranch is ribboned with thin paths he’s beaten into the soil, and as we walked one along the edge of a Forest Service–managed pond, Heiser told me about "an incredible evening. I sat by the shore here the other night," he said, "and I saw two beavers—half-grown, the size of footballs—building a dam. One kept diving and bringing up mud, and the other would bring sticks from across the water in his mouth. I watched for an hour, and then I told my neighbor about it. A few days later, I found one of the beavers floating head-down in the pond, shot."

We climbed to the top of a hill, and Heiser kept talking. "This is where I grew up, from the time I was zero," he said. "It’s where my connections to nature were formed. It’s where I saw bighorn sheep come in from the cold and prairie fires burn. You have experiences like that, when you are young, and you acquire a deep topophilia, a love of place, that you can’t escape. It leads you to defend that place."

Since starting the Badlands Conservation Alliance, Heiser has helped defeat an oil company that sought to drill within sight of the national park, and has led nature walks into the badlands’ backcountry springs. He is typical of North Dakota environmentalists, who tend to be homegrown and take action because they’ve seen the idyllic places of their childhood whittled away. But he is also possessed of a singular focus. One winter, he told me as we meandered back toward his barn, he went 30 straight days without ever driving away from his ranch. He just holed up, cooked frozen beef, and kept notes on the black-tailed deer that fed on the hay outside his window. Many other winters, he’s conducted backcountry poetry hikes. "If the windchill drops below zero," he said, "I try to cancel, but otherwise we go out a few miles and find shelter and there, beneath a juniper tree or in the lee of a sandstone ledge, we read for maybe half an hour: Gary Snyder, Walt Whitman, Mary Oliver. Poetry fits the badlands. It’s life distilled to its bare essentials."

After I left John Heiser’s ranch, I drove north to the badlands’ only sizable community—Watford City, population 1,500. Watford, which calls itself "the REAL West," is a rarity: a small town almost devoid of chain stores. On its main drag, there is Larsen’s Service Drugs, the City Bar, Bob’s Bar, Tubby’s Auto Sales, Heggen Farm Equipment, and the Four Eyes Motel, whose fluorescent sign bears a drawing of a rather cherubic-looking TR. The soul of the town, though, is just off Main Street in the McKenzie County Bank, where the lobby is appointed with mounted trophies—a moose, a cougar, an elk—and where Vice President Dale Patten can usually be found, fretting.

Patten, a tall, bony man with a balding dome of a forehead, makes his living loaning money to ranchers. He is a commissioner for McKenzie County and he is dead set against the Sierra Club’s call for wilderness on the Grasslands. But he and his allies—the commissioners in nearby Billings, Golden Valley, and Slope Counties—have yet to mobilize against wilderness, focusing instead on the Forest Service’s Grasslands plan. On the morning I visited Patten at seven, he was underlining the legalese in the Forest Service plan. "This could be apocalyptic," he told me, peering up from his desk. "This plan could have a bigger impact on our way of life than anything since the droughts of the thirties."

Patten was a font of statistics. Citing a report commissioned by the Heritage Association of North Dakota, a group he co-chairs, he argued that the state could lose a billion dollars over the next decade—$500 million in ranching revenues and $500 million in oil revenues. These dire figures were based on a draft of the Grasslands plan that’s since been supplanted by a newer, oil- and ranch-friendly version. They were also speculative, and I was not inclined to believe them.

The plan does not enjoin ranchers from grazing cattle—or even driving—in roadless areas. These regions abound with two-track "prairie trails," auto routes too insubstantial to meet the Forest Service’s arcane definition of "road," and ranchers can drive on them. Indeed, nationwide, ranchers (and only ranchers) are allowed to drive into federally designated wilderness. If they fill out the requisite paperwork, they can even drive off the two-tracks in wilderness—to rescue a hurt cow, say, or mend a torn fence. The Forest Service predicts that enacting its Grasslands plan would cause, at most, a 9 percent decrease in grazing and would annually cost the ten counties closest to the Grasslands a total of $2.8 million in lost income. The agency’s literature also suggests that, if grazing and oil are curtailed, more and more hikers and mountain bikers will come to the Grasslands, along with their tourist dollars.

But the word "billion" transfixed Patten and he and I spent half a day driving around in his Ford Explorer, surveying a country that is, he insisted, "placed on the brink of economic peril by the Forest Service." We drove by some oil wells, and Patten told me that McKenzie County gets a million or so dollars a year in royalties from drilling on the Grasslands.

Patten and I also visited a tiny elementary school whose student body had dwindled to four. We talked about what Wal-Marts have done to disintegrate small towns on the plains. After a while, we crossed a dry gulch, Horse Creek, and turned off into a patch of Grasslands the Forest Service proposes to keep roadless. We crunched a few miles down a scoria two-track, passing a deer and a few cows, and then Patten pointed toward something in the far distance: a line of white rocks cleared long ago, to the side of a crop field, by homesteaders. The homesteaders had vanished, probably after a string of dry years that crushed North Dakota 60-odd years ago, and now the rocks were surrounded by a sea of grass. They were a sad sight. Someone had failed here.

The truth is that thousands and thousands of people have failed on the badlands. It is an aptly named place: cold, hot, lonely, steep, and underlain with dusty soil that some years gets no more than five inches of rain. It is a place where the prospect of failure is a somber, everyday reality. The Forest Service plan is, on such a landscape, just another black cloud. The cloud probably carries no hail, but folks in McKenzie County do not even want to find out. "Trying to make a living here is hard enough as it is," Patten said. We drove on.

Over the next couple of days, I drove around some more on the Grasslands. All told, I drove over 800 miles in reporting this story and, as I bought all of my fuel in North Dakota, it’s a fairly safe bet that I burned up a bit of the Grasslands. This realization made me ask some questions: Should I have skipped driving deep into and around the backcountry? Should I have hiked in? Do all of us drive too much? Are there other alternatives?

I can see Theodore Roosevelt rolling his eyes at such queries. It is quite possible that TR, were he alive today, would be the proud owner of a gargantuan SUV with a custom interior made out of ocelot hide. But perhaps not, for he was a visionary, a radical in Brooks Brothers clothing, and if I squint now, I can see him motoring about in a stylish Honda Insight, his brow furrowed as he glides toward the nirvana of 70 miles per gallon.

The Grasslands cannot, in the long run, withstand the drilling that a consumptive America demands of it. Short of sacrificing the land so loved by Roosevelt, or reverting to horseback as a way to get around, is it possible to devise an energy policy—one that emphasizes higher gas mileage for cars, better transportation systems, and more energy-efficient buildings and appliances? What would a far-sighted president like TR propose?

One can only speculate, and I was doing just that—gnawing on a make-believe historical bone—when I decided, at last, to end my stay in the badlands with a hike. I walked—first over the Buckhorn Trail in the national park and then off this trail and through a broad, grassy plain scattered with juniper and on up the bare brown slope of a butte. It was hot and the sun glared, but the dried mud was soft like pine needles under my feet. I kept going and the hillside got steeper and rocky and a couple of times I had to throw my hands out in front of me and grab at a crag. I pulled my way onto the top, finally, and then stood there in the strong wind and felt my shirt flap at my ribs and the sweat cool and dry on my skin.

Beneath me, there were no people, no sounds, no signs of civilization. Only a gray rock, a cluster of cottonwoods, a green hillside, a sandstone cliff that was yellow and bright in the sun. The land seemed endless, and endowed with a pattern that surpassed logic. I wanted it to stay that way forever.

Bill Donahue writes for Outside, Mother Jones, and the Atlantic Monthly. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

A ride through two worlds

Cycling between badlands and prairie in North Dakota.

By David Hanson

You enter badlands carefully. The name alone forces a cautionary pause even before you’ve set foot between the mounds of crumbly, striped clays and silts. Plenty of those who entered before you–Native Americans, French fur traders, early explorers–deemed the austere place a wasteland. Prairies, on the other hand, sound welcoming and benign–expanses of red, green, and yellow grasses dotted with groves of cottonwood and juniper. In western North Dakota, where grasslands and badlands converge around the Little Missouri River, you experience both worlds.

I turn my barge of a bicycle onto the trail and am relieved to find the wind at my back. Three days of gear for our ride requires a pull-behind trailer, and I need all the help Mother Nature can provide. In 1999 the U.S. Forest Service completed the single-track Maah Daah Hey Trail, which begins at the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, traverses the remote Little Missouri National Grasslands, and ends at the park’s south unit, winding atop grassy, windswept plateaus and plunging in and out of badland canyons for nearly a hundred miles. Fittingly, the trail’s Mandan Sioux name translates to "be here long."

Turtle-emblazoned trail markers (symbolizing steadfastness, determination, and fortitude) stand out above knee-high grasses. Otherwise, we could easily become lost in the labyrinth of undulating prairie. A product of well-tended suburbs, I had always equated a lack of trees with a lack of nature. But here the emptiness feels so essential. Where water rises close to the surface in shallow gullies and draws, trees thrive; here, the trail turns black with the rich soil. We pause in one shaded area, protected from the persistent wind. Yellow cottonwood leaves shake, their distinctive rustling overwhelming the ceaseless swish of prairie grasses.

With the Pacific far to the west and the Atlantic to the east, most storm fronts dry up by the time they hit these plains. Such low, sporadic rainfall, coupled with cycles of hot summers and long, frigid winters, starves out trees and other vulnerable vegetation. In soils laid down by ancient seas, blue grama, western wheat grass, and little bluestem thrived where deep tree roots cannot take hold. Today’s rolling (and sometimes plunging) landscape–and my thrill ride–was made possible when the Little Missouri and its tributaries began slowly but relentlessly biting into these soft depositional layers.

I skid my bike to a stop just above a canyon rim, where the Maah Daah Hey drops off the prairie in a series of tight switchbacks. The crusty silt cracks beneath the weight of my bike as I maneuver around the first corner, and the badlands erupt before me. Wrinkled, lizard-skin cones rise and gullies disappear into a maze of purple, cream, and gray horizontal bands.

A long spine runs southward, its vertical rain-scoured grooves resembling pipe organs rusted and chinked by time. In the low light of dusk, the horizon appears dotted with domes and mosques and temples in shaded stripes one layer upon another.

There is evidence of unremitting erosion everywhere. I pass a gully 15 feet deep where the earth has slumped. At its head a tiny dried creek shows signs of a recent flow: bent grasses and debris caught in sagebrush. A trickle has created a small canyon big enough to park a limousine.

Just past a post marking the middle point of the Maah Daah Hey Trail, we descend to the banks of the Little Missouri. The brown, shallow water takes up less than half of the riverbed. We lift our bikes over the sticky mud and wade across the stream that has almost single-handedly created thousands of acres of badlands.

We stray from the trail when it intersects a dirt road, and soon come upon a ranch where five cowboys are herding cattle through a gate. Feeling like interlopers, we walk our bikes and try not to alarm the horses. To our surprise, the men welcome our approach and inquire about our trip. While the national park units to the north and south of us restrict private use, the Maah Daah Hey Trail passes through "intermingled public and private lands," as one sign states. Later on we meet a group of fathers and sons on an elk-hunting trip who offer us much-needed water as we top out at Devil’s Pass, elevation 2,600 feet.

The "multiple use" policy has its drawbacks. Prairie dogs, abundant in the national park, don’t dot the grasslands along the Maah Daah Hey, and no bison roam outside here; overgrazing, off-road-vehicle use, and even oil wells have taken their toll. The Sierra Club and other environmental groups have proposed preserving the remaining 218,000 roadless acres of the Little Missouri Grasslands as North Dakota’s first federally protected wilderness area (which would require rerouting the bike trail in some places). Until then, the best wilderness experiences are found down in the tight canyons, where I see only a rugged mix of soil, grass, and sky.

On our last day my load is lighter, but the wind blows from the west, bullying me as I weave across the high grasslands of the trail’s southern half. A high-pressure front carries dark clouds, and we risk becoming mired in gumbo if the weather doesn’t hold up. While the prairie can handle the water, down in the badlands the trail can become a streambed within minutes. But the dark clouds pass and the wind blows harmless puffs overhead. The trail dips in and out of badlands and grasslands, cloud shadows and soft sunlight adding to an otherworldly landscape.

David Hanson is a writer in Seattle.

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