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Theodore Roosevelt National Park projects to make strides in 2021

Theodore Roosevelt National Park projects to make strides in 2021

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MEDORA -- Big plans are ahead for Theodore Roosevelt National Park this year.

Long-awaited road repairs will begin to take shape. The $5.5 million Peaceful Valley Ranch restoration project is expected to be complete in the spring.

And the park will be working closely with the planned Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library as the project moves ahead. Library organizers in 2020 raised $100 million for construction, enabling the project to access a $50 million state operations endowment approved by the 2019 Legislature.

Last year was a different time for the park, starting when the coronavirus pandemic emerged in North Dakota in March. Visitation boomed, doubling over the same month in 2019.

But 2020 visitation through November was about 24% behind 2019, which Park Superintendent Wendy Ross attributes to the pandemic situation nationwide, and to a five-week closure in spring for health and safety reasons and to prepare for summer.

Visitation between Memorial Day and Labor Day lagged behind 2019 numbers, but summer still was "extremely busy," with 1,400 to 1,800 visitors a day to the park's South Unit visitor center, according to Ross.

And there's been attention on the area due to the library's plans, the neighboring Medora tourist town and Theodore Roosevelt National Park being showcased as "a park where people can go and get away from people," she said. North Dakota's Tourism Division advertised the state's outdoor destinations, including the national park's trails, with the slogan "Follow your curiosity, not the crowds." 

"This park is one of the lesser-visited parks in the system, and you can get to places where you don't see people in this park, and I think that is definitely a draw," the superintendent said.

Road repairs

For more than a year and a half, park visitors haven't been able to travel the full loop of the South Unit's scenic drive, which threads rugged Badlands, grassy prairie and river bottomland.

A slump due to erosion carried away a section of roadway in May 2019 near Badlands Overlook. Ever since, visitors have had to drive in and back out due to a miles-long road closure, along which other failures have occurred, including sinkholes and road movement.

Ross said visitors have been understanding about the closure, with few complaints. And she points out that motorists are able to see the park's Badlands from "a full, different perspective, exactly 180 degrees when you have to return the same way you came into the park."

The U.S. Federal Highway Administration will use a pending geotechnical assessment report to design a road repair plan with an architectural and engineering firm in 2021, with construction to be completed by the end of 2022, if all goes according to plan, Ross said.

Construction will rebuild a 6-mile stretch between the Old East Entrance Station pullout and the scenic drive's loop junction, she said.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt prioritized the road under the Restore Our Parks Act, part of the Great American Outdoors Act, which President Donald Trump signed into law in August. 

The Great American Outdoors Act provides up to $1.9 billion every year for the next five years from excess energy revenue derived from federal lands, for deferred maintenance projects of agencies including the National Park Service.

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said he asked Bernhardt, who visited the slump in 2019, and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to prioritize the roadway.

"Then it was just a matter of having all the funding available, otherwise that could have slowed it down, but we got the money through the legislation," Hoeven told the Tribune.

North Dakota's National Park Service sites have about $50 million of deferred maintenance, mainly roads, according to the senator's office. Theodore Roosevelt National Park has about $47 million in deferred maintenance.

Ross said costs for repairing the roadway depend on the geotechnical assessment report, which she expected would be submitted to the Federal Highway Administration by the end of December.

"I am just delighted that we have a funding source and that we have our geotechnical assessment wrapping up and that we're ready for the next stages," she said.

'Like brand new buildings'

The rehabilitation and stabilization project at the historic Peaceful Valley Ranch in the South Unit began last spring and is nearing completion.

Ross expects the project to finish by April. Workers have begun on the buildings' interiors after exterior work on the ranch house, log bunkhouse and barn.

Logs were replaced and chinked on the barn and bunkhouse. The buildings were jacked up and restabilized. The barn's floor was replaced. Windows were redone, the buildings were reroofed and the ranch house was repainted a creamy white. 

"They look like brand new buildings," Ross said.

The historic ranch dates to the 1880s, when Roosevelt hunted and ranched in the area, and was park headquarters from 1947-59. The ranch most recently was home to a horseback riding outfit until 2014.

Accessibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act also has been a focus in the project. Ross said she's committed to accessibility for people who use wheelchairs or who have other disabilities, after hearing of a poor experience from one visitor in a wheelchair who couldn't use visitor center restrooms or access park trails.

ADA accessibility extends to the parks' new campground restrooms -- prefabricated facilities from South Dakota installed last month. The $1 million project replaces older facilities that weren't as accessible. The projects are funded by park and National Park Service recreation fees.

The park also installed paved, ADA-accessible walkways at Skyline Vista and Boicourt Overlook in the South Unit.

'Critical working year'

Chief for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in 2021 are its design and programming.

Included in the $2.3 trillion spending package recently signed by President Donald Trump was a provision for a land sale for 93 acres of U.S. Forest Service land eyed for the library near Medora. The legislation clears a major hurdle for the project, which could begin construction in late 2021.

Norway- and New York-based architectural firm Snohetta was chosen last fall to design the library. North Dakota-based firms JLG and JE Dunn also have been selected for the project, as architect of record and construction manager, respectively.

Library CEO Ed O'Keefe said programming decisions will cover aspects such as the functions of the library's physical spaces and the partnership with Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the National Park Service. 

The library and the National Park Service have a memorandum of understanding. O'Keefe said the entities are developing a partnership in construction agreement, for collaborating on projects such as means of access, including a proposed tram in Snohetta's design concept.

"The biggest and most critical component of the success of the library is the engagement of the local community and the partnership with the national park," O'Keefe said.

Ross sees the partnership between the library and the park as natural. The park is in a yearlong site planning process for its developed areas, including the Peaceful Valley Ranch, a process that involves community input and collaboration with the library.

"We are going to be working with (the) Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library board to see what their plans are and create what I would describe as a dispersed visitor experience that complements the library," Ross said.

The library board last fall announced it had raised $100 million in donations to build the library and unlock a $50 million state operations endowment. O'Keefe said the library board doesn't expect to receive a disbursement until mid-2021 at the earliest.

Operations include administrative costs such as mailing and office supplies, preconstruction activities such as surveys and water and sewage assessments, and rent for the library's Medora office, he said.

The $100 million includes $300,000 for the city of Dickinson for prior library planning when organizers had eyed that city for the site before moving on to Medora, and $10 million to Dickinson State University for an endowment to continue digitizing the 26th president's papers and to create a Roosevelt conservation scholars program. 

Organizers continue to raise money for the library, which has garnered an additional $2.5 million since late October.

2021 will be a "really important, critical working year" for the project, according to O'Keefe.

"It's moving fast," he said. 

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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