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North Dakota's Best Idea — Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch:

The Crown Jewel of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

By Clay S. Jenkinson

 

"My home ranch-house stands on the river brink. From the low, long veranda, shaded by leafy cotton-woods, one looks across sand bars and shallows to a strip of meadowland, behind which rises a line of sheer cliffs and grassy plateaus. This veranda is a pleasant place in the summer evenings when a cool breeze stirs along the river and blows in the faces of the tired men, who loll back in their rocking-chairs (what true American does not enjoy a rocking-chair?), book in hand--though they do not often read the books, but rock gently to and fro, gazing sleepily out at the weird-looking buttes opposite, until their sharp outlines grow indistinct and purple in the after-glow of the sunset."

 

Theodore Roosevelt

Hunting Trips of a Ranchman

1885

What exactly is the Elkhorn Ranch and where is it?

 

The Elkhorn was the second of two ranches Theodore Roosevelt established in Dakota Territory. His first ranch, established in September 1883, was called the Maltese Cross (or Chimney Butte). Roosevelt did not name it. It was located seven miles south of the Northern Pacific Railroad track on the east bank of the Little Missouri River. The Maltese Cross cabin, built for TR by his ranch hands Bill Merrifield and Sylvane Ferris, now rests on the grounds of the visitor center of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora.

 

The following year, consumed by grief after the simultaneous death of his wife Alice and his mother Mittie on the same day, Valentine’s Day 1884, Roosevelt returned to Dakota Territory (in June) and sought out a remote place of solitude to serve as a second cattle ranch. He found his ideal location 35 miles north of the little village of Medora, on the west bank of the Little Missouri River. He chose to call the ranch the Elkhorn because when he was exploring the site he found the interlocked antlers of two bull elk. They had fought until their antlers were entangled so completely that they could not extricate themselves, and they died of starvation. This suited TR’s mood precisely. Roosevelt operated both ranches throughout his time in Dakota Territory—between September 1883 and the spring of 1887. The historical records indicate that the Elkhorn was his principal or home ranch. It was there that he had his hired men Wilmot Dow and Bill Sewall construct what was for the time a rather luxurious frontier cabin, 60 feet by 30, including a veranda along the entire eastern face of the cabin, a private bedroom for himself, and even a bathtub (made of rubber).

 

How large was/is the Elkhorn Ranch?

 

Roosevelt never owned a single acre of the North Dakota badlands. He was technically a squatter, like 99% of the other grangers in the area. The badlands of Dakota Territory were “still open range in those days,” as Roosevelt wrote in Hunting Trips of a Ranch Man. The custom of the region in that era was that an individual was entitled to graze the land four miles down and four miles upriver from his headquarters, and a number of miles perpendicular back from the river, extending even to the headwaters of the creeks and coulees that drained into the Little Missouri. Thus TR’s Elkhorn Ranch would have been approximately eight miles long and perhaps as many as 15 miles wide.

 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park embraces only 218 acres of the ranch, on the west bank of the Little Missouri River, the Elkhorn cabin (homestead) site. Those 218 acres constitute only a tiny fraction of the Elkhorn Ranch as Roosevelt knew it. Fortunately, the viewshed from the veranda of the Elkhorn cabin is now partially protected. The east-northeast prospect is managed now by the U.S. Forest Service. The east-southeast prospect is owned by a private individual with strong conservation commitment. For the foreseeable future, the cabin site and the viewshed across from it will be protected from adverse economic development. But the larger acreage of the historic Elkhorn Ranch is not protected.

 

Why do I hear about several Elkhorn Ranches?

 

It does get a little confusing. 1. The Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the 218 acres that constitute TR’s ranch headquarters, on the west bank of the Little Missouri. When people talk about the Elkhorn Ranch, this is usually what they mean. 2. The former Eberts Ranch on the east bank of the Little Missouri is called the Elkhorn Ranchlands by the U.S. Forest Service. The 5,200 acres of the Eberts Ranch are being managed to protect the heritage of the Elkhorn. 3. Some people call the original ranch that Roosevelt developed in 1884 the “Greater Elkhorn Ranch” to encompass all the lands he grazed and claimed, and to differentiate those lands from the smaller parcel that embraces both the NPS site and the former Eberts Ranch. Some of the Greater Elkhorn Ranch is now privately owned, and some is managed by the U.S. Forest Service and State of North Dakota. At least one private ranch in the vicinity of the National Park site is called the “Elkhorn Ranch” because part of it overlaps the Greater Elkhorn Ranch.

 

When people talk about saving or protecting the Elkhorn Ranch, they certainly mean the 218 acres managed by the National Park Service, and they generally also mean the viewshed ranches (the former Eberts ranch and the Clemens ranch on the east bank of the Little Missouri River.

 

What is the status of the proposal to make the Elkhorn Ranch a National Monument?

 

A number of individuals, including Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris and TR’s great grandson Tweed Roosevelt have proposed that President Obama (or his successor) name some part of the Greater Elkhorn Ranch a National Monument. Thanks to the Antiquities Act of 1906, the President of the United States is entitled to name National Monuments by proclamation. The sponsors’ purpose is to give the Elkhorn Ranch greater protection by linking the existing 218 acres of National Park property to some portion of the Greater Elkhorn Ranch, including the former Eberts Ranch (the Elkhorn Ranchlands), and perhaps some adjacent properties now owned by the state of North Dakota. The aggregate would be called the Elkhorn Ranch National Monument.

 

The National Monument proponents have not been specific enough so far to give federal agencies the information they would need to assess the proposal. It seems unlikely that Theodore Roosevelt National Park or the National Park Service would support a proposal that transferred jurisdiction over the Elkhorn Ranch Site (218 acres) from National Park to National Monument status. If increased protection were legislated by Congress for the Greater Elkhorn Ranch, it would seem more logical to expand the boundaries of Theodore Roosevelt Park, unless the National Monument were somehow folded into the existing administrative portfolio of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

 

It’s all a little vague and confusing. In the short term, it is unlikely that much will come of this proposal, which was born as a method of preventing a gravel pit from being developed on the old Eberts Ranch.

 

What is the significance of the recent inclusion of part of the Greater Elkhorn Ranch on the National Register of Historic Places?

 

In September 2012, the Elkhorn Ranch was added to the National Register of Historic Places, the list of properties the federal government considers worthy of recognition and protection. Approximately 4,400 acres were included in the designation, including the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Such designation does not actually protect the Elkhorn Ranch in any legally binding way, but it gives the sanctity of the Elkhorn Ranch the imprimatur of the United States government, and it will undoubtedly call greater national attention to the Elkhorn Ranch at a time when it is endangered by the oil boom in western North Dakota.

 

In June 2012, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Elkhorn Ranch one of the eleven most endangered places in America. The National Trust cited the proposed bridge across the Little Missouri at or near the Elkhorn Ranch as the reason it included the Elkhorn in its annual list, which in 2012 included the Bridges of Yosemite Valley, the Ellis Island Hospital Property, and Joe Frazier’s Gym in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The National Trust list, too, called attention to the industrial threats to the Elkhorn Ranch.

 

Why is the Elkhorn Ranch important?

 

"The river flows in long sigmoid curves through an alluvial valley of no great width. The amount of this alluvial land enclosed by a single bend is called a bottom, which may be either covered with cotton-wood trees or else be simply a great grass meadow. From the edges of the valley the land rises abruptly in steep high buttes whose crests are sharp and jagged. This broken country extends back from the river for many miles, and has been called always, by Indians, French voyageurs, and American trappers alike, the ‘Bad Lands.’"

 

The Elkhorn Ranch is one of the most beautiful places in North Dakota. It may be the most beautiful place in North Dakota. It is also one of the most beautiful places in North America.

 

It was Theodore Roosevelt’s second home. His primary home was Sagamore Hill at Oyster Bay on Long Island, of course, but his second home was the badlands of Dakota Territory. He later told Senator Albert Fall of New Mexico that if he could keep only one of all the splendid memories of his life, just one experience and no other, it would be his time as a rancher, hunter, and cowboy in the Little Missouri River Valley. When TR said in Fargo in 1910 that he would never have been President of the United States had it not been for his time in North Dakota, he meant it. It was not just a gracious thing to say. In the badlands of Dakota Territory Roosevelt was transformed from a highly educated, frail and fragile, somewhat shrill New York snob, who was dabbling in cowboy life, into a true exemplar of the strenuous life, and a true champion of average men and women in the United States. There are few places in America where we can still stand in the landscape that shaped the adult character of a man or woman who went on to national greatness. The Elkhorn Ranch was that incubator. Anyone who is interested in Roosevelt should at some point in her or his life make the pilgrimage to the Elkhorn Ranch Site. When you are there, you can trace the boundaries of his ranch house, sit in his living room, lie down in TR’s bedroom, and doze or dream under the magnificent old cottonwoods that border the cabin site on the east. Some of those cottonwoods were alive at the site when Roosevelt lived among us.

 

The Elkhorn Ranch is a quiet sanctuary that exhibits the Little Missouri badlands at their absolute best. Roosevelt chose the site for his second Dakota ranch well. The surrounding bluffs create a small quiet amphitheater on the west bank of the Little Missouri. The bluffs behind the ranch house are far enough away to create a lovely meadow graced with cottonwoods, junipers, and sagebrush. There is a sense of peace and security at the ranch, of being embraced by the surrounding hills, that does not create a sense of claustrophobia, but rather of comfort and an almost sacred aura. The Elkhorn Ranch site is snug, even though the buttes and bluffs that flank the Little Missouri River there are steep and dramatic.

 

The Little Missouri River has shifted a little east from its location in TR’s time, but if you wade across the river (and why not?) at the Elkhorn, you can see virtually the same scene he captured in a still photograph sometime around 1886. Roosevelt was one of the first Americans to own an inexpensive portable camera, when they were rare and newfangled. The photographs he took at the Elkhorn still exist in the special collections of Harvard University. They match up beautifully with contemporary photographs or video. At some point you realize that you are standing in a place that is substantially unchanged in 100 years, a place that healed Roosevelt, a place where he wrote the only tribute he would ever write to his first wife Alice Hathaway Lee, a place where he wrote a substantial portion of two of his books, and a place where he thought about the dynamics of frontier history and the future of the American West.

 

It is astonishing that such a place still exists. Roosevelt himself believed that the open range era of western history was coming to a close, that the romantic cattle ranchers and cowboys would fade from American memory, and that sturdy family homesteads would replace the kind of large ranches he helped to establish. Partly thanks to the sheer isolation of the place, and partly owing to wise Congressional action in 1947, the Elkhorn has been preserved more or less as Roosevelt left it when his sojourn in Dakota Territory ended. Unlike Walden Pond, which is nestled in the midst of housing developments, traffic arteries, and a haphazard tourism industry, the Elkhorn Ranch is an authentic and largely untrammeled shrine to a great man and the conservation consciousness he developed in part in Dakota Territory.

 

The Elkhorn is still seldom visited. Visitors cannot reach the cabin site without getting there on their legs, and though the walk is a short and easy one, it reminds everyone that shrines are best seen when they have been earned, rather than approached by motor vehicles.

 

The Elkhorn Ranch has always been important, but it becomes dramatically more important as the North Dakota badlands are compromised by wholesale oil development. Embedded in the heart of what will be a gigantic latticework of wells and storage facilities, gas processing plants and new oil access roads, the Elkhorn is a perfect remnant of what the badlands once were. The Elkhorn Ranch may now become one of the handful of places that people from North Dakota and elsewhere can go to experience the badlands without industrial intrusions and noise.

 

The Elkhorn would be worth revering and protecting if Roosevelt had never stepped foot in North Dakota. But thanks to his presence in the Little Missouri badlands between 1883-1887, the place will forever persevere as one of the handful of most important conservation shrines in North America.

 

Why has there been no attempt to rebuild the Elkhorn cabin?

 

The Elkhorn cabin has been gone since at least 1901. The Park Service has marked the locations of some of the outbuildings, which you can identify if you take a site map with you, and sandstone foundation blocks represent the outline of the house, tucked in among the old cottonwood trees.

 

The National Park has no plans to rebuild the Elkhorn cabin. The site is a shrine, a place of solitude and serenity with few signs of industrial intrusion. When Park rangers take groups to the Elkhorn, they often suggest that people lower their voices and bring a spirit of special respect to the site.

 

As usual Roosevelt said it best, though he was at the southern lip of the Grand Canyon when he said it. “Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it.”

 

Why has the Elkhorn been called the “cradle of American conservation”?

 

The phrase was first used of the Elkhorn by a prominent member of the Boone and Crockett Club, Lowell Baier. It has since been adopted by others, including Douglas Brinkley in his book on Roosevelt and conservation, Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America (2010). What Baier and others meant is that because Roosevelt became one of the principal conservationists in American history, and the most serious presidential conservationist in our history, and because some of his conservation ideas were first formulated at the Elkhorn Ranch, the ranch should be regarded as the cradle of government-initiated conservation programs on the public domain. In other words, Baier and others believe that the idea of the national government taking an active role in the conservation of America’s natural resources somehow has roots in Roosevelt’s experiences in the Dakota badlands and specifically at the Elkhorn Ranch.

 

How serious are the threats to the Elkhorn?

 

Very serious. The threats include a proposed bridge across the Little Missouri River, a proposed gravel mine at the Eberts Ranch, and the general encroachment of oil development in western North Dakota.

 

The Bridge. Billings County is determined to construct a bridge across the Little Missouri somewhere in the northern reach of the county. No matter where they put it, it would have a negative effect on the Elkhorn Ranch. Even if the bridge were located a number of miles north or south of the Elkhorn, the noise of up to 1,000 oil trucks per day and the dust they’d stir up would impair the serenity of the Elkhorn. Such a bridge would accommodate and invite a volume of industrial traffic that would scare wildlife (elk, bighorn sheep, deer, mountain lions), recreationists, and tourists out of the area. Once the bridge was in place, there would be increased pressure to pave the access roads. That would only enable more traffic in this sensitive area. Proponents have not so far made a compelling case for a bridge or a low water crossing. At times they speak of the need for emergency vehicles to have ready access to ranches on both sides of the Little Missouri River. Occasionally they admit the truth, that the principal purpose of the bridge would be to facilitate oil traffic in the heart of the badlands.

 

Opponents of the bridge argue that none of the proposed crossing sites would really shorten the number of miles oil trucks have to travel to get materials in and out of the oil fields, that the bridges at Medora and Watford City are adequate, that U.S. Highway 85 will always be the main artery for oil traffic, and that creating a crossing in the heart of the badlands would have a devastating effect on one of the most beautiful, pristine, and unimpaired regions in the Little Missouri River Valley.

 

At the moment the bridge project is still in the planning stage. Billings County intends to choose one of the handful of alternatives sometime in 2013 and then seek funds for construction.

 

The Gravel Pit. A Miles City entrepreneur has made a proposal to develop a gravel mine on the former Eberts Ranch, within the viewshed of the Elkhorn Ranch Site. Unfortunately, the mineral rights were not fully secured by the U.S. Government when the Eberts family sold their ranch to the U.S.Forest Service in 2007. If the gravel were mined at the former Eberts Ranch, there would be noise, dust, and other disruptions to the Elkhorn site for several years, and possibly some scarring of the viewshed. For the moment, the developer has backed off. The U.S. Forest Service has been negotiating with him to swap his minerals at the Eberts Ranch for equally valuable minerals elsewhere in the badlands.

 

It should not be assumed that the threat of a gravel mine has disappeared. The developer in question is immensely resourceful, fully aware of the non-economic value of the Elkhorn Ranch, and determined to extract cash from his holdings. The oil boom requires enormous quantities of gravel, which makes the Eberts gravel deposit more valuable month by month.

 

This is an ongoing concern.

 

The Larger Encroachment. In addition to the bridge and the gravel mine proposals, the North Dakota oil boom is threatening the Elkhorn Ranch. As Badlands Conservation Alliance member Jim Fuglie has been pointing out recently, the gravel mine and the proposed bridge cannot be understood outside the context of the Bakken and Three Forks Oil Boom, which is bringing about a wholesale industrialization of the western North Dakota countryside. The oil boom—in all of its industrial manifestations—represents the greatest threat to the North Dakota badlands since the dust bowl years. If oil prices remain high, and assuming more lucrative deposits of oil shale are not discovered elsewhere in the American West, the present oil boom may last for up to forty years. It may lead to the drilling of up to 50,000 fracking wells in western North Dakota. Such “badlands” towns as Killdeer, Watford City, Grassy Butte, Belfield, and even Medora are experiencing development pressures and population growth unprecedented in their history. Water resources are strained in many places; traffic is heavy and in many places dangerous; tens of thousands of people with ties to or respect for the landscape and heritage of North Dakota have moved into the state for the sole purpose of extracting oil and helping to ship it out of state; some industrial accidents have already occurred and many more are sure to follow.

So far, the heart of the badlands has not been wholly impacted. Many of the existing wells involve pool rather than shale oil, i.e., traditional oil drilling rather than fracking. But dramatic changes are coming.

 

Oil leases on private lands in North Dakota have a three-year lifespan. Oil companies must develop those properties within three years or lose the lease. Oil leases on federal lands have a ten year lifespan. Based on the boom mentality and the logic of low hanging fruit, the oil companies have so far concentrated their efforts on private lands because the resource is so rich and the window of opportunity is so much shorter. Now, however, the ten-year leases on public lands are starting to approach expiration. That means that the oil companies will be diverting some of their rigs from private to public lands to drill at least one well on each lease property before their leases terminate.

 

We can expect a very significant wave of oil shale (fracking) wells in the heart of the badlands over the next four or five years. To understand how hectic and emphatic this development activity will be, you’d have to visit the Bakken fields around Watford City or Stanley, where development is unfolding at a furious rate, and the quality of life, as well as of the landscape, has been dramatically impaired.

 

The impending encroachment of the oil boom into the heart of the badlands will have an enormous impact on the Elkhorn Ranch, even if that industrial activity does not take place in close proximity to the 218-acre National Park Site or the 5,200 acre Elkhorn Ranchlands. It is already possible to see oil field activity from the Elkhorn Ranch cabin. At times there is a distant rumble of pump jacks or oil traffic. It is only rational to expect a much greater volume of oil field traffic, some of it close enough to create noise and dust pollution not only in the Greater Elkhorn Ranch but at the NPS site itself. In driving to the Elkhorn Ranch, one must share the gravel roads with huge oil trucks, the dust of which creates a temporary white-out effect that is both unpleasant and dangerous.

 

It seems irrefutable to conclude that in the next thirty years, the qualities that make the Elkhorn Ranch so magnificent a place will suffer serious, even dramatic, compromise; and that the experience of future visitors to the Elkhorn will be one of measurably diminished satisfaction.

 

What can people do to help protect the Elkhorn Ranch?

 

The best thing to do is to visit the Elkhorn Ranch site so that you can experience for yourself why it is so magnificent and so important to protect. Take your friends, especially influential friends. Write about it in your blogs or on Facebook on in emails to your friends. The more people we can get to the site—to experience it in its still largely pristine condition—the more advocates there will be when important decisions are made about its future.

 

Before the bridge or a gravel mine were developed, or other infrastructure that involves federal lands, there will be periods of public testimony and public comment. You can make your views known at that time, or at any time during the process. U.S. Government agencies take public comment seriously. The outpouring of concern about the bridge proposal in 2008 actually halted Billings County’s plans to throw down a low water crossing, and forced county officials to take a slower, more deliberate approach.

 

You can, if you wish, join and contribute to such organizations as the Badlands Conservation Alliance (www.BadlandsConservationAlliance.org) or the Friends of Theodore Roosevelt National Park (www.FriendsofTR.com).

 

You can contact the Governor’s Office, the Billings County Commission, your state legislators, your Congressional Delegation or, for that matter, the President of the United States (if you wish to support the National Monument proposal).

 

Aside from visiting the site soon and often, the best thing you can do at this point is to watch the newspapers and the websites listed above to keep abreast of developments at or near the Elkhorn, and to weigh in on a timely basis with your thoughts about the right future for the Elkhorn Ranch. Vigilance is the only way to prevent decisions from being made without full public participation.

 

For more information please contact:

 

Clay S. Jenkinson

1324 Golden Eagle Lane

Bismarck, ND 58503

 

701-202-6751

 

clayjenkinson2010@gmail.com

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Photos courtesy of David Nix

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