MEDORA -- U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt during a visit to Theodore Roosevelt National Park on Thursday pledged moral support and guidance for siting a proposed Roosevelt presidential library in or near the park.
“These are precisely the types of things that we hope succeed and that we can partner with going forward,” he told reporters in Bismarck before embarking on the trip to Medora, the tourist town on the park’s doorstep.
Bernhardt came to western North Dakota to discuss deferred maintenance needs at the park and siting for the proposed library. His visit came a day after he discussed private property rights with farmers and landowners in the Hope area in eastern North Dakota.
The foundation raising money to build the library has previously said several potential sites in the Medora area -- some inside the park and some outside -- have been identified as possibilities for the library. Roosevelt ranched and hunted in the Medora area as a young man in the 1880s before moving on to the White House and becoming the nation's 26th president.
U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who accompanied Bernhardt along with U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and Gov. Doug Burgum, was unsure if siting the library in the national park would require federal legislation, saying “it depends on how this gets configured.”
“It depends on site, how we do it, what the arrangement is with the state, so there’s multiple options,” he told reporters in Bismarck.
“I think that we’ll have to look at it, but there are generally multiple ways that we can get to the same outcome,” Bernhardt later told the Tribune.
The National Archives administers 14 presidential libraries, starting with Herbert Hoover. By law, libraries for presidents before him have to be built without federal financial support.
The state Legislature earlier this year approved a $50 million endowment fund for library operations. Money from the fund is available only after $100 million is raised privately to construct it.
Burgum said the fundraising campaign for the library officially kicked off about two weeks ago. Descendant Theodore Roosevelt V is helping lead the effort, according to the governor.
“There’s an opportunity to have a conversation with just about everybody in this country about the impact that Roosevelt has had and the relevance of him today,” Burgum said, expressing optimism for fundraising.
Hoeven said the foundation is "more than halfway to its goal" without elaborating. Mike Eggl, the foundation's former CEO, said last spring that $52 million in pledges had been obtained. He didn't disclose where the money would come from.
Eggl, who resigned at the end of July, was replaced this week by North Dakota native and CNN executive Edward O'Keefe. O'Keefe on Thursday said the foundation has a “Top Five” list of potential locations for the library. Bernhardt saw two of them -- one near the park’s entrance and one near the Burning Hills Amphitheatre, site of the Medora Musical in the Badlands.
“The way I look at it is, we’re either going to be tenants or neighbors of the national park,” O’Keefe said during a roundtable discussion in Medora. “And if we happen to be tenants, that’s obviously a much more involved process of working together cohesively and quickly to get this library built.”
The national park is the “fourth wall” of the library, he added, gesturing to the Badlands landscape.
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“The location is not an arbitrary decision,” O’Keefe said. “I know that there’s an anxiousness to understand where’s it going to be, but in a much grander scale where you put your house is a pretty critical decision.”
Billings County State's Attorney Pat Weir said the library project also should consider county zoning rules, safety concerns, lighting, security and local infrastructure. The park already draws 700,000 visitors each year, making it the state's top tourist attraction.
But Medora is a small town, with a resident population of only about 125 people.
“I think the main thing is for the library to go forward perhaps to keep the people who live here more in the loop, because if there’s any negative thoughts about it, that would, I think, revolve around the idea that you’re going to ruin the ambience of what brought Theodore Roosevelt here in the first place,” Weir said.
Cramer said the first part of the project should be to "eliminate the impossible," and Bernhardt said he wants the process to be as transparent as possible.
“I think No. 1, we have to engage the community on a regular basis,” Bernhardt said. “There has to be open and candid conversation that is two ways.”
Bernhardt's Medora visit included a stop at the Painted Canyon Visitors Center overlooking the scenic Badlands and the roundtable in Medora about maintenance needs and advancing the library.
He also visited a slumped section of roadway in the national park that in May led to the closure of 6 miles of the park’s 36-mile scenic drive. Erosion due to water under the roadway caused the slump. Erosion is common in the colorfully layered Badlands due to the landscape's soft rock shaped by wind and water.
Park Superintendent Wendy Ross gave Bernhardt and the North Dakota leaders an overview of the park’s layout and also discussed avenues to repair the road and address other problem areas.
Bernhardt couldn’t immediately say how soon the slumped roadway could be fixed.
“It’s not a small project, but it’s obviously a project in immediate need,” he told the Tribune.
Ross said the road failure will be assessed for a design to fix it. She’ll keep in touch with Bernhardt’s office about options for repairing it. She welcomed the interior secretary’s visit to show him the park’s issues on the ground, from siting the library to the slumped roadway.
“You really can’t understand something until you see it and experience it,” she told the Tribune.
Bernhardt's predecessor, Ryan Zinke, visited Theodore Roosevelt National Park in May 2018 to discuss the park's backlog of about $50 million in deferred maintenance.
Hoeven on Thursday advocated passage of the Restore Our Parks Act, legislation he co-sponsored with Cramer that would use money generated by energy development on public lands to create a fund to address national park maintenance backlogs. He's also pushing for more money in the National Park Service budget.