We North Dakotans are so fortunate to be the home of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Just for a moment, imagine North Dakota without it.
My purpose, in this column, is to address two myths about the North Dakota oil boom. First, that the Badlands are going to be spared, or that the oil development in the Badlands is going to be less emphatic than on private lands. Second, that — whatever else is true — Theodore Roosevelt National park is going to be just fine since no oil development is permitted within the boundaries of the park.
By now, everyone is beginning to understand that the Bakken oil boom is going to carpet virtually all of western North Dakota with an industrial latticework that is going to transform the way we see our vast and open landscape — and ourselves. Industry experts are talking about 40,000 to
60,000 wells, plus storage facilities, water plants and reservoirs, railroad spurs and loading facilities, gas plants, broad new four-lane highways in places you never expected to see them and even a couple of gigantic oil refineries. In addition to all of that, there will have to be huge parking lots to store the heavy equipment between runs and side tracks to store all the oil tanker railroad cars that are coming here to carry the wealth of North Dakota elsewhere. (This is the pattern of North Dakota history — we unearth commodities, and send them elsewhere for the value-added processing).
Most of this hectic, wholesale industrial activity in our former agrarian backwater is going to take place on private lands. Some of it will take place in the 1.2 million acres of the Little Missouri National Grasslands — public lands, owned by all of us, for the benefit of all of us, one of North America’s greatest grasslands preserves. None of this oil development will take place within the boundaries of the three units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. As you know, the south unit of the national park consists of 46,158 acres, the north unit 24,070 acres. The Elkhorn Ranch Site a mere 218 acres, for a total of
North Dakota’s mineral development protocols look like this: On private lands, with a willing buyer and a willing seller, no government intrusion into the sanctity of contract; on Theodore National Park lands, no mineral development whatsoever; on U.S. Forest Service lands (Little Missouri National Grasslands), government cooperation in developing the minerals, but because these are public lands, some development restraints and conditions are legitimate.
The Badlands will not be spared. The reason that oil development has been lighter in the Badlands than on North Dakota’s broad plains, so far, is that leases on private lands are for three years, while leases on federal public lands are for 10 years. Because there is essentially an “infinite” amount of shale oil in every direction from the epicenter in Stanley-Watford City, the oil companies have very intelligently been developing the low hanging fruit first, and drilling on private lands first because it’s “use it or lose it” on those expensive oil leases, and three years is not a very long time to schedule drilling operations. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on all those 10-year leases. In the next couple of years, the oil companies are going to have to start developing their leases on federal lands in an emphatic way. Very soon, our “last best place,” our Wild West, the magnificent, stark, primordial Badlands of North Dakota are going to be transfixed by rigs, storage tanks, pump jacks, new scoria roads and an enormous amount of heavy truck traffic, kicking up dust storms in their wake.
Nor is Theodore Roosevelt National Park going to be OK. A few days ago, a senior employee of TRNP took a couple of enlightened guests from Washington, D.C., to Buck Hill, the highest point in the park (south unit) — one of the most beautiful places in North Dakota. From the top of Buck Hill, they saw more than
25 oil wells or other oil-related industrial structures — to the south, to the east, to the north. And this is in the less emphatic phase of Badlands oil development. They returned that same night, in the dark, and from the top of Buck Hill they saw gas flares everywhere they looked — an industrial encirclement along the perimeter of North Dakota’s National Park. One of them said it looked like Iraq after the first Gulf War, when retreating Iraqi troops set the oil wells on fire as a final act of contempt and nihilism.
One of my closest friends went to the north unit a couple of weeks ago to celebrate the re-opening of the Scenic Drive that takes you up to Oxbow Overlook. He and his mate watched the sunset at the end of the road. After it became dark, he made a video of the gas flares north and west of the National Park. It’s a shocking video. The prairie landscape has a carnival look now, a Fourth of July fireworks look. On video, it has the feel of the end of a Bob Dylan concert, when everyone holds up Bic lighters in tribute to his genius. From within the National Park, you can smell a hint of methane in the limitless air above North Dakota.
I took a group of three to the Elkhorn Ranch the other day, our pilgrimage to the place that healed the grieving soul of Theodore Roosevelt after the simultaneous death of his wife and mother on Valentine’s Day 1884. We wanted to sit within the “footprint” of the 30- by 60-foot Elkhorn Ranch House (long gone) to have a conversation about the future of the Badlands and the National Park. But before we started gabbing in a sacred precinct, one of the shrines of the American conservation movement, we went silent for a couple of minutes, just to drink in the spirit of place. But it wasn’t silent. Over the bluffs to the northwest we heard the steady “thup, thup, thum thum thup, thum thup,” of the diesel power plant that keeps a pump jack churning.
National parks are places the American people have deliberately set aside as permanent sanctuaries for humans and other animals to seek refuge from the industrial paradigm. The National parks are, as the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns reminds us, “America’s best idea.” If you run industrial activity (noise, dust, odor, visual blight, traffic) right up to the fence lines, you compromise something that depends on solitude and reverence to have its full meaning.
It’s like throwing up an adult bookstore next to a cathedral.