Theodore Roosevelt
Administrative History
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I pictured in my mind the future visitor to the badlands, we'll say the visitor who is attuned to the message [of] wild open country. I pictured him climbing up to a grassy plateau, and sitting there on a knoll to contemplate the scene. There would be the scent of the sod at his feet. He would look with interest at the curled heads of the grama grass, the grama grass of Roosevelt's day, the grama grass of the tumultuous days when this country was formed. . . .

Not a serrated mountain range here, not a mossy forest, nor a lake studded paradise. Rather an open country; its trees are twisted and storm worn, and grow sparingly along the river banks. A raw country, a country in the making perhaps. This very fact, this character, the attributes of chiseled buttes and domes, the clay and the prairie grass, the eagle, the prairie dogs, deer, coyote; the flocks of grouse at the heads of the wooded draws—all these spell one phase of our west—not to be compared with different ones—to be taken and enjoyed for its own singular beauty and character. Ordinary country, but with an aura of the west. . . .

— Olaus Murie, December 1949


Most people come to Theodore Roosevelt to have fun. They come to relax, take a scenic drive, perhaps to car-camp for the night. Only one in ten stays longer. Nearly a third never even contact a ranger during their stay. Most are just passing through on their way to somewhere else—the general fate of all of North Dakota, it must be said. [1] This suggests that quite a few visitors to Theodore Roosevelt engage in a self-directed, self-reliant park experience, which is in itself no bad thing.

Backcountry use

And of course, there are always a few who, in the course of being on their way to somewhere else, find themselves compelled to abandon their cars, venture away from the asphalt, and explore a river bank or scramble up a butte or wander through a draw. Itineraries are discarded, if only for a few hours. Like Roosevelt, these people—far removed from Edward Abbey's infamous description of the typical national park tourist [2] — have succumbed to a desire to get out into the backcountry.

The challenge of the park's backcountry lies in mastering extremes, and not merely those of climate. Badlands topography offers little of the familiar. Narrow coulees quickly become confining; buttes and defiles seem to alternate endlessly with a disorienting repetition. The open prairies of the plateaus can be more forbidding yet, for in a sea of grass there is no shelter and nowhere to hide—quite unsettling to a species with a marked preference for being on the edge of the open. [3] It seems one must choose between claustrophobia and the tyranny of the open sky. There is little middle ground in the Theodore Roosevelt backcountry.

Few are ready to meet the challenge entirely alone, and so horseback trips have always been the favorite method of getting into the backcountry. A 1970 survey found that they constituted seventy-five percent of over all backcountry use, which itself had increased sixfold since 1960. At the time of the survey there were designated sites for camping and a couple of marked trails but no formal trail system, resulting in a proliferation of tracks in grassland areas of the park. [4] Group rides were particularly popular; some saddle clubs even bought or leased private land just outside the park for base camps, while others used group campgrounds within. [5] Plans to institute buckboard rides into the backcountry, although much debated by high-echelon NPS officials in the late 1960s and early 1970s, did not catch on. [6]

Hiking has never competed with horse use in popularity. Foot travel is hindered by the rugged terrain, lack of drinking water, and capricious Plains weather. A comprehensive trail system for both hikers and riders has just lately been put together. There were no maintained long-distance trails at all for the first fifteen years of the park, and only three nature trails: Long X, Ridgeline, and Wind Canyon. [7] Backpacking may yet become more popular, especially in the North Unit given the recent congressional approval of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, which is planned to run nearby. [8]

River recreation is seasonal. Late spring runoff raises the water in the Little Missouri channel to truly navigable levels for a few weeks each year, but by mid-summer flowage drops and the river takes on the consistency of old coffee, discouraging canoeist, swimmer, and wader alike.

The other "high season" on the river is winter. The Little Missouri is usually frozen from the first of December to early March. As the sole natural thoroughfare in the badlands it has been used for decades as an ice highway by local residents in pickup trucks, on horseback, or, most recently, on snowmobiles.

Snowmobiling is prohibited in national parks unless the superintendent permits it in carefully circumscribed areas. Recreational snowmobiling was first allowed in Theodore Roosevelt on a trial basis in 1969, confined to the frozen river in the North Unit and to a twenty-nine-mile trail of river and loop road in the South Unit. When the time came to form a definite policy on snowmobile use, the park staff did an environmental impact assessment. It recommended a compromise solution: restrict snowmobiles to the Little Missouri. The cost of damage to ephemeral river features (e.g., sandbars) and of noise pollution in the river corridor was thought far less than that of tread erosion and wildlife disturbance over a much wider land area. To have banned snowmobiles altogether, on the other hand, would have meant alienating a small but vocal part of the local community. [9] There was no challenge to the assessment's conclusions, so in 1975 the river was permanently opened to snowmobiles, though their use has not been unduly encouraged. [10]

No changes in river recreation have come about be cause of the designation in 1975 of the Little Missouri as North Dakota's first state scenic river, but until ownership of the river bed is finally established the possibility remains open. [11] Nor has wilderness designation made a significant difference: the backcountry was already being managed de facto as a wilderness, and, because of the ownership problem, the river was not included in the designated area anyway. [12]

MISSION 66: the connecting parkway

Backcountry use is slight compared with conventional automobile touring. The park has therefore devoted a proportionate amount of money and expertise to the latter, and never so much as during the MISSION 66 program. Begun in the mid-1950, in anticipation of the Service's fiftieth anniversary in 1966, a major part of MISSION 66 was an agency-wide push to build new visitor facilities. A 1954 "wish list" for the park drawn up by the Greater North Dakota Association, a group devoted to promoting tourism in the state (and successor to the Roosevelt Memorial National Park Association), prefigured the kind of projects that were soon actually undertaken at Theodore Roosevelt as part of MISSION 66: new entrance roads, campground utilities, visitor centers, boundary fencing, and headquarters buildings. [13]

At Theodore Roosevelt the task was not only to expand facilities to accommodate increasing visitation (Table 11.1), but to re-do what was built before the park's admittance to the National Park System. "When Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park was created," a MISSION 66 circular explained, "an area which had already under gone some development as a Recreational Demonstration Area became subject to some new concepts. Under the recreational area program, campgrounds and picnic areas were provided as were horse trails and roads, all without emphasis upon historical significance. When the area became a part of the National park System, largely on the basis of its historical associations, the concepts of appropriate development had to be adjusted accordingly." [14] In terms of its own goals MISSION 66 was a success: the park headquarters was moved from an antiquated situation at peaceful Valley to a new visitor center in Medora, a new South Unit entrance road was built, and interpretive signs were erected along the loop drive. The North Unit also got a set of road-signs, improvements to Squaw Creek campground, and other facilities. [15]

Easily the most ambitious proposal to come out of MISSION 66 was for a parkway connecting the three units. The idea had been bandied about since the 1920s, but nothing came of it until it was revived by the Greater North Dakota Association in 1957. It proposed a scenic highway starting from U. S. Route 12 at Marmarth and ending at U. S. Route 2 near the present-day Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site, west of Williston. [16] The idea was picked up by the Service and became part of the elaborate plans to make the Elkhorn Unit the focal point of the park (see Chapter 2).

The parkway was never built because there was no agreement on its purpose or worth. For the park staff it was a means to an end: a connecting highway would assure some development of the Elkhorn, which in turn would mean that the park was fulfilling its prescribed mission as a historical area. The Washington leadership of the Service saw an opportunity for regional recreational development: as part of a longer Prairie Tourway, the proposal suited the increased emphasis NPS was giving to recreation at the time of the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission. The parkway was also consonant with the personal philosophies of Director Conrad L. Wirth and Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall, and received their explicit support. [17] Politicians smelled a porkbarrel (indeed, the Parkway became a central issue in the 1964 congressional race between Don Short and Rolland Redlin), and North Dakota representatives repeatedly tried to get Congress to fund the project. [18]

Booster groups dreamed of it as part of "a non-mountainous, non-metropolitan, Great Plains gateway to southern winter resorts and northern recreation areas." [19]

The Forest Service, on the other hand, was never enthusiastic about the parkway and by the early 1970s had decided that "it would cause irreversible damage to the virtually virgin Little Missouri River flood plain" if it were ever built. It is also quite possible that USFS anticipated the escalation of energy exploration (although they, like most others, probably thought the boom would come in coal, not in petroleum) and did not want an inconvenient parkway tying up their options in the Little Missouri National Grasslands. They flatly declared that it would never be constructed—at least not using USFS lands. [20]

The position of the ranchers, by virtue of their diversity, was the least easy to gauge. Some were unalterably opposed because the planned route crossed too many "base lands" used to produce crops and pasture for livestock in winter; others, because they had already seen the government take plenty of agricultural land out of production as part of the Garrison Dam diversion on the Missouri River. Still others thought a parkway useless as a farm-to-market route, promising nothing but stock kills and scenic easements. And some thought it an invasion of their tenaciously-held privacy. [21] But a sizable number were in favor, especially those families living in Billings County away from the proposed route. [22]

An inordinate amount of time was spent trying to amass the political wherewithal needed to gain approval. Meetings and briefings and more meetings were held. The issue was debated over the coffee table and at the polls. Theodore Roosevelt's superintendent kept the Midwest Regional Office apprised with special monthly reports for three years running. But as the end of MISSION 66 drew near, sentiment for large-scale development projects faded. [23] Congress as a whole showed no great interest in the Parkway bills, and the disparate opinions of the project prevented a coalition of effective political support from forming. Like the Elkhorn Ranch restoration, the parkway was quietly dropped from the park's agenda. A different set of priorities was coming into view.

This is not to say that no physical plant expansion has taken place in recent years. Two major changes in North Unit recreational facilities have been made: the remodeling of Squaw Creek campground and the paving of the scenic road all the way to Oxbow Overlook. The campground is beautifully situated in a grove of cottonwoods near the confluence of Squaw Creek and the Little Missouri—making it susceptible unfortunately, to erosion and violent springtime flooding. River bank stabilization was but one of the improvements carried out: abandoned campground roads were obliterated, the loop re-routed campsites modernized, and a small campfire circle built. [24] Even more important was the long-awaited paving of the entire scenic road, previously hard-surfaced only as far as Squaw Creek. The rough drive on to Oxbow had discouraged visitation to the North Unit. [25] Both projects met with the approval of local residents who probably considered them partial compensation for NPS's support of the North Unit wilderness areas (see Chapter 7) and who, in any event, thought "improved facilities in the park will correspond to better facilities elsewhere and that without improved facilities in the park, outside development will be deterred." [26] Recent construction of note in the South Unit includes the Painted Canyon visitor contact station, a separate park administration building, and the remodeling of the Medora visitor center.

It should be mentioned in passing that concessioners have played just a small role in the park's history. The tone was set by Julius Krug, the secretary of the interior, at the dedication ceremony in 1949. He told the audience that no concessions would be necessary within the park as long as local businesses provided services that kept pace with demand. [27] This view went unchallenged by MISSION 66. Concessions were not made part of its program "since most of the visitors can obtain a satisfying experience from daytime use of the area and food and lodging are available in places not too distant from the north and south units. . . ." [28] Since 1967 Peaceful Valley Ranch has been operated as a trail ride outfit, but this is the only important concession Theodore Roosevelt has ever had. [29]

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Last Updated: 15-Jan-2004