Theodore Roosevelt
Administrative History
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The purpose of a national park is not served if its resources are not understood by the public. Interpretation is therefore a crucial part of resource management.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is challenged to uphold the high standard of its namesake, who was one of the more talented amateur descriptive naturalists of his time. Roosevelt had in abundance the single most important quality of a good interpreter: a keen, curious eye. [1] Few pages of his western writing pass but some vivid image of the natural scene is conveyed to the reader. Today, a goal of the park's interpretive program is to imbue visitors with Roosevelt's enthusiasm for nature while explaining the human background of that enthusiasm.

Facilities and the Interpretive Prospectus

In the early to mid-1950s, before the installation of any interpretive facilities, park historians Chester Brooks and Ray Mattison conducted extensive research into Roosevelt's time in the badlands. [2] Thanks to their diligence, by 1956 the park's MISSION 66 planners could declare that "historical research has now progressed to the point where the story can be told in simple, accurate terms. Only the facilities to tell this story in an interesting manner are needed." [3] Theodore Roosevelt used money made available under MISSION 66 to build its interpretive program from the ground up. The Service saw the Park as "perhaps the best place in the entire National Park System in which to bring to life the important American history of the pioneer cattleman. . . ." [4] While attempts to rejuvenate the Elkhorn failed, in general MISSION 66 was able to provide the park with many needed visitor facilities: a new visitor center in Medora (1959); an entrance station for the North Unit (1961); the relocation of Roosevelt's Maltese Cross cabin from Bismarck to Medora and its restoration (1959, 1961); and the building of the Long X (later Caprock Coulee) nature trail (1957, 1962). These new facilities (but especially the completion of Interstate 94) made it possible for the old East Entrance station in the South Unit to be closed in 1965. [5] Without them interpretation would have remained limited.

One major park planning document, the Interpretive Prospectus, directly addresses these sorts of needs. It is a statement of ideal facilities, of what the park staff would like to see in place. Theodore Roosevelt's prospectus was completed in 1973. It echoed the emphatic insistence of the master plans on developing the Elkhorn Unit so as to fulfill the historical mandate of the park. The entire interpretive program was to be built around the Elkhorn (for details, refer to Chapter 2), but the prospectus admitted that as long as the ranch site remained "virtually inaccessible" plans for its restoration might as well be written in the sky. [6]

One of the more insightful moments in the document came when it made a real distinction between the North and South units, one which seems to have always been there in the minds of Service personnel but never before articulated. Because Roosevelt had only the slenderest connection with the North Unit region, the prospectus called for fewer facilities there in keeping with its unspoiled ambience. Away from the tourist center of Medora and the interstate highway, the North Unit was relaxed, its "speech" laconic, as it were. The North Unit scenic drive offered a "low-keyed, pleasant experience, an experience that should not be changed significantly, but enhanced." [7] Unburdened by the contrived need to spotlight Roosevelt, North Unit interpretation could be devoted to natural history. For example, the prospectus hoped that the scenic drive would be divided into six sections corresponding to different plant communities, culminating in a "modest interpretive facility" at Oxbow Overlook. [8]

This certainly was a useful contrast to the South Unit, where everything somehow had to tie in with Roosevelt, from having him be the "leading actor" in each museum exhibit to constructing a nature trail at Painted Canyon around the theme "A Walk With T. R." All the stops along the loop road were to have a tie-in except for Peaceful Valley Ranch, which, to avoid confusion with the Elkhorn, was not to be associated with Roosevelt. At the time it was thought the existing waysides could benefit from "a stronger thread of Rooseveltian outlooks." [9]

As laid out in the prospectus, the interpretive program was to "help visitors understand the need for conservation as Roosevelt saw it and compare this with the need for environmental conservation today." [10] While no doubt still a goal of today's interpretation, a short visit to the park is long enough to see how little of the prospectus has come to pass. There is no development at the Elkhorn or at Oxbow, no thread of Rooseveltian outlooks woven through the stops along the South Unit loop road. The reasons why were foreseen even before the prospectus was written. "The real problem in preparing the Prospectus is in determining how to merge the natural history of the Badlands and the actions of Mr. Roosevelt as president in later years," wrote an NPS interpretive specialist in 1967. He concluded that "this is something that will take a good historian to work out," [11] partly because "verification of Roosevelt's history with the natural surroundings is lacking." [12]

Exactly so. There is no convincing evidence that the conservation ethic Roosevelt displayed as president was shaped entirely, or even primarily, by his time in Dakota Territory. There is much evidence to suggest that his experience in the badlands was precipitated and shaped by a predisposition toward conservation, and that his ranch life there formed a vital part of a cumulative tendency in his adulthood toward a conservation ethic, but to attribute his actions as president directly to his Dakota years—as again and again Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park seemed to be asked to do—is simplistic. Roosevelt was nothing if not a complex man, one who had already had what many would consider a lifetime's worth of experience before he even stepped off the train at Medora in 1883. But the national memorial park honoring him had an institutional mandate to emphasize human history, Roosevelt's history, and to above all else make connections between his intangible presence and the tangible natural resources of the park. In short, the prospectus was charged with finding connections that were not always there, for it is impossible to "merge" the natural history of the northern badlands with what Roosevelt accomplished in the White House. In this respect, the Interpretive Prospectus reflected the miscasting of the park as a historical area.

Museum collection and exhibits

Using both artifacts and specimens in interpretation is one way the park now attempts to balance human and natural history. The museum collection is frequently consulted by the staff for exhibits, research, campfire programs, and demonstrations. Its purpose is interpretation and interpretation alone; anything not furthering this end is not accessioned. For example, there is no attempt to have one specimen of each species in the park—just those useful for visitor programs. [13] Artifacts must relate directly to Roosevelt or to the open range cattle industry of the period from 1880 to 1898. [14] Not surprisingly, the collection was originally mostly devoted to human history; the natural history holdings were "very meager and of little benefit to staff or visiting scholars." [15]

In 1962 an evaluator from the Regional Office in Omaha described how the collection was displayed at the new Medora visitor center. He found the museum room "jam packed with exhibits," leaving no room for short-term displays. Human and natural history themes were kept strictly separate, the latter having "little tie-in to Roosevelt's residence here." None of this surprised him, for he knew the museum room had been built expressly to showcase human history. Most natural history interpretation was supposed to take place in situ. [16]

Another study was made of the museum in 1975, and while it does not mention overcrowding specifically, the checklist of displays it gave included a diorama, stuffed animals, artifact exhibits, audio-visual exhibits, flat-wall panels, and human history display cases. [17]

No such criticism can be made of the museum today. After the visitor center was remodeled in 1979 and 1980, the Harpers Ferry Center designed new exhibits in accordance with the latest tenets of museology. No longer is most of the floor taken up by display cases and most of the wall with text. Gone are the obtrusive audio-visual devices. A disembodied effect is sought, the visitor stepping out of time, drawn naturally around the room by a logical mixture of human and natural history. There is plenty of open space on the floor and white space on the walls. Plexiglas panels, aluminum rods, and wooden cut outs make the exhibits seem to float in the air. In the center of the room is a life-sized horse sculptured from thin wood slats, stained lightly. It is an accomplished and beautiful work which succeeds as art without detracting from its utilitarian purpose, which is to support a Roosevelt mannequin dressed in articles of clothing that actually belonged to him. Some of his rifles and other personal effects are also on view, as are natural history specimens in a series of informative "spoiler" panels. [18] The authenticity of all these items is enhanced by the reticence of the museum-makers in designing the exhibits.

Sureness in handling a theme is the hallmark of the new park museum. The ambience is so natural that one leaves with the feeling that it could not have been done in any other way. But it could have been, of course, and in fact almost was. In the late 1950s the Service was approached with a proposal that, had it been carried through, would have made for very different interpretation than that existing today.

In 1959 a Twin Cities frontier history buff came forward and made what was to be the first in a series of fanciful offers to develop an elaborate living history site in the park. He began by proposing to donate $500,000 toward the restoration of Peaceful Valley Ranch. The man was a rather well-known manufacturer and the Service was fully cognizant that he had the means to make good on his offer. Understandably, the Midwest Regional Office was excited about the possibility and wasted no time in dispatching Ray Mattison, who by then had been promoted from his post at Theodore Roosevelt to the position of Site Survey Historian, to the man's home for a follow-up interview. Their first meeting uncovered a major problem, however. It came out that he wanted to build a museum in the park for the sole purpose of housing his western memorabilia, which might not have been an insurmountable demand except that Mattison found his collection to be mostly exotica picked up during the course of his travels. Little of it was authentic and none suitable for display at Theodore Roosevelt. [19] The Regional Office spent the next three years trying to coax him into a realistic restoration plan, but he responded by proposing even more grandiose projects. [20] He eventually found an appropriate outlet for his largesse in the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.

Personal services

As any Chief of Interpretation will admit, a park's program stands or falls with its interpreters. Thought-provoking person-to-person contact has always been the goal of NPS interpretation, setting it apart from the purveyors of "industrial tourism." The same qualities that make personal services successful make them difficult to write about. The best interpreters gently prod visitors to discover the park for themselves, and there are no written accounts of the prodding. All one can do is indicate the variety of formal programs tried at Theodore Roosevelt over the years. It is not possible to measure in any meaningful sense how well this all-important phase of interpretation has succeeded.

Although records for the period are scant, personal services were apparently rather limited until the beginning of the facilities expansion in 1956. Self-guided automobile tours, probably the most popular visitor activity from 1951 to 1961, can be taken as typifying the early years. [21]

Personal services really began to take off with the opening of the Maltese Cross cabin, the development of nature trails, and the other improvements remarked upon at the beginning of this chapter. Not until 1961 were any seasonal interpreters hired for the North Unit, and not until the next year were there regularly-scheduled campfire programs. [22] But even then guided walks and hikes were not offered because it was observed that "no Park travellers have exhibited any interest in remaining long enough to take, say, a half-day tour"; overall, Theodore Roosevelt had "scarcely any long-stay visitors." [23]

From these modest beginnings has come a most diverse program. Over the last twenty years visitors have been offered horse-mounted ranger talks along the rim of Painted Canyon, sun viewing, midnight caravans to the burning coal vein, Bicentennial caravans to the Elkhorn, and free surrey rides. [24] Interestingly, unlike the park's overall management, personal interpretive services seem to have always tended toward the kind of balance between natural and human history suggested by this short list. In fact, the 1963 Master plan exhorted the staff to make them "the dual interpretive themes for the park with nearly equal emphasis placed on each. A deeper appreciation of this historical period, of western and national development, a national pride stirred by the accomplishments of Theodore Roosevelt, and a cultivated perception of the wilderness character of the badlands should be conveyed to each visitor." [25] Despite lapses of coordination between the park historian and the chief naturalist during the years both were on staff, [26] because of this balance the interpretive program was probably affected least of all by the park's redesignation in 1978.

If interpretation has not shown the swings in emphasis we have seen elsewhere, it has changed in other ways. Nearly all interpretation now includes precepts of environmental awareness. At Theodore Roosevelt environmental education per se began in 1968 as part of a Servicewide project composed of three parts: the National Environmental Education Development program, which aimed to "introduce the total environment concept without preaching" in a network of outdoor study camps; Environmental Study Areas (ESAs), sites in national parks to be made available to local school groups for day use; and environmental awareness messages to be delivered as part of regular park interpretive programs. "Basic needs of living things" and ecosystem relationships were the themes to be gotten across. [27]

The Service saw parks joining the array of "educational resources" available to the classroom. NPS personnel would provide schools with preparatory material and teacher training but would not plan or lead actual field trips to the park. [28] For the most part, parks were to carry out the project locally, even if geography limited them to working with a single school. [29]

Isolation turned out to be the main obstacle to the success of the project at Theodore Roosevelt. The three cities nearest the park—Dickinson, Beach, and Watford City—were full of enthusiasm, but feared travel time (they are thirty-three, twenty-six, and fifteen miles away, respectively) would be a fatal problem. [30] The park went ahead anyway and designated part of Halliday Wells in the South Unit as an Environmental Study Area in 1969, but declined to set up outdoor study camps, declaring that "the expense and logistics are beyond the means of local schools." [31]

This observation was soon borne out for the Environmental Study Area as well. Not nearly enough field trips were able to be made to justify setting aside 160 acres as an ESA. [32] "After several years of no response from nearby schools," [33] in 1975 it was decided that "elimination of the ESA would not result in a serious impact to the local school system." [34]

Still, the environmental awareness component of the NPS project did work out. [35] In fact, the environmental education program can be considered an overall success because of the alacrity the interpretive staff has shown in incorporating the tenets of ecology into their presentations. If any one message runs through all the formal and informal person-to-person interpretation, it is the total environment concept, the idea that there exist relationships, seen and unseen, which tie together everything in the park, both the living and the inanimate. This message, delivered over and over in every sort of ranger-visitor situation, is probably more powerful in its totality than even a successful Environmental Study Area would have been.

Support services

Helping to carry the message to the public is the function of the Theodore Roosevelt Nature and History Association. The park's cooperative association sees it self as supporting "a public educator in ecological principles as well as environmental problems." As its name implies, the TRNHA tries to keep a balanced thematic perspective, even though it was founded in 1951 by a historian, Chester Brooks. [36] Despite its small size, the TRNHA has long been regarded as a particularly active and innovative park cooperative association; it was, for example, one of the first to incorporate and gain tax-exempt status. [37] Although it reaches visitors directly through its own publications, the TRNHA also gives NPS personnel the latitude to make their interpretation more professional. This means purchasing books for the park library, or buying support equipment which otherwise would never find its way into the annual budget, such as mopeds for roving interpretation. The TRNHA also funds resource management projects, such as the recent study of lichens as indicators of changing air quality, and helps defray the costs of other special research, such as the compilation and publication of this administrative history.

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Last Updated: 15-Jan-2004