Theodore Roosevelt
Administrative History
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MR. ROCKWELL: May I ask one question? Is there anybody who is opposing this addition to the park?

MR. PRICE: No. I think that can be brought out a little later by one of our witnesses who has lived there a long time. He is a rancher near the park.

MR. ROCKWELL: There are only two groups I thought might possibly question it. One would be the livestock group that would want the land for grazing, if any, and the other would be the people who might want to go underground and look for oil and gold. We had a little difficulty with another park. After we had almost passed the bill, they came in here and wanted an extension of time during which they might want to drill for oil. I wondered if there was anything like that.

MR. LEMKE: There is not. The grazing people are satisfied with the submarginal lands they have outside.

MR. ROCKWELL: What about subsurface rights?

MR. LEMKE: There is no mineral in North Dakota outside of the freak, a little manganese around the spring in the Indian reservation near Rolette. We have so much lignite coal nobody is interested in any that might be in this area.

MR. ROCKWELL: There is no chance of oil?

MR. LEMKE: No chance of oil. . . .

— Hearings to add the North Unit, House of Representatives, 1948


What happens outside a national park affects what happens inside it. This premise, simple enough, is not necessarily obvious. Indeed, for years there was a popular notion that, once created, national parks became islands of pristine nature set in a sea of development, saved forever, beyond the reach of the despoilers. [1] It is a notion that has not yet been completely abandoned.

Aficionados of the parks have long been aware of the effects outside entities can produce. John Muir at the turn of the century:

The forty million acres of these [national park and forest] reserves are in the main unspoiled as yet, though sadly wasted and threatened on their more open margins by the axe and fire of the lumberman and prospector, and by the hoofed locusts [i.e., grazing sheep], which, like the winged ones, devour every leaf within reach. . .

Fifty years later Freeman Tilden was still optimistic:

I think it would be wrong to overemphasize here the attacks that are constantly being attempted on the integrity of the parks by private self-interest. But they are very real, very annoying, always lurking in the background, and consequently they must be grasped by the owners of the property—the whole people. As a rule they do not get very far. The Service has the backing of hundreds of thousands of organized and ardent conservationists, who swarm forth like wasps when someone throws stones at the nest. [2]

Muir and Tilden were describing what are now called "external threats" to the parks.

A great revelation in park management in the last twenty years has been the expansion of the concept of external threats. Managers have come to realize that external threats can also be indirect, originating not only immediately adjacent to the park but hundreds of miles away. They know now that more than trees and animals and artifacts can be threatened, but high-quality visitor experiences as well.

The best evidence is contained in the State of the Parks Report of 1980. This study, circulated widely upon publication, brought to light the magnitude of the threats to the parks: the great number of internal and external threats to resources, the lack of knowledge about the threats, the absence of baseline information about the resources threatened. [3] In short, the Report outlined some of the most acute problems currently facing the National Park System.

As for the general public, those with an interest in the parks are by now likely familiar with internal threats, or at least one in particular: the problem of overcrowding, of "loving the parks to death." It has been the subject of a slew of newspaper accounts, feature articles, and television reports. [4] But external threats have received far less popular attention. This is to be expected, because much of the debate on external threats takes place on a highly technical, esoteric plane and does not lend itself to short journalistic treatment. A second reason derives from the first: the problem of external threats is so complicated that the Service itself is just now beginning to grasp its extent. The State of the Parks Report was the first Service-wide assessment of how pervasive they are. [5]

Energy development is the archetypal external threat. It can cause physical deterioration of resources. It can change the social milieu in which the parks operate, and alter the surrounding political economy. It can even deny visitors important direct sensory experiences. But like most external threats, energy development cuts both ways: it can provide a great deal of money to individuals and governments, contributing to an increase in the material standard of living. Beyond this, the energy produced allows people mobility, mobility to visit remote places—like national parks.

Thereby hangs a tale. Threats are only threats according to one's point of view. Even the most dire external threats carry some ancillary benefits, diffuse and delayed perhaps, but benefits nonetheless. It must be remembered that the Park Service has never set itself up as an intransigent opponent of the extraction and processing of oil, natural gas, and coal in the Northern Plains, despite portrayals to the contrary. The role it has wisely adopted is that of advocate, arguing not against development, but for balance: balanced land uses, economies, and choices open to the public. Still, NPS recognizes that it is its duty to make sure external threats do not become "a sacrifice by a public that, for the most part, is unaware that such a price is being paid." [6]

The rest of this chapter recounts the history of Northern Plains energy development vis-a-vis the park. Chapter Four looks at Theodore Roosevelt's unique position as the only oil-producing national park. Aesthetic management is analyzed in Chapter Five, and possibly the gravest threats of all, those to the park's air quality, are discussed in Chapter Six.

The Williston Basin

Theodore Roosevelt is situated in the middle of the Williston Basin, one of the richest hydrocarbon regions on the continent. So-called because the city of Williston, North Dakota, is at its center, the "Basin" refers to a saucer-like depression in the crust of the earth, its bottom a Precambrian layer of granite. Long ago North Dakota was covered by shallow seas which advanced and receded, depositing layers of sediment. In the western part of the state the weight of the sediment was great enough to depress the earth's crust into a basin shape. This Williston Basin covers 130,000 square miles from northwest South Dakota into Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and from east-central North Dakota into northeast Montana. At the "Watford Deep" under the Killdeer Mountains the granite bottom layer lies 16,000 feet beneath the earth's surface. [7]

The porosity of the sediments filling the Basin made two things possible: the carving of the northern badlands by the ancestral Little Missouri River, and the creation of hydrocarbons. Over centuries the Basin became layered with organic material trapped in sandstone and sediments; slowly decaying, it formed oil, natural gas, and coal. These pockets then became topped with impermeable material, forcing the pools of oil and gas to filter through the porous sediment until they became permanently trapped against harder anomalies in the subsurface layers. There are two kinds of traps: structural and stratigraphic. Oil can be structurally trapped where domes of hard rock (called "anticlines") rise from the otherwise level granite bottom of the Basin, or, alternatively, in places where accumulation against a fractured impermeable layer is possible (a "fault trap"). Stratigraphic traps are porous areas containing pools of oil, surrounded by impenetrable rock. [8]

Finding oil in the Williston Basin, then, is a matter of finding these underground anomalies. Commercial exploration usually begins with a seismic survey. Seismography operates on the same principle as radar. Waves are generated from a fixed point at a constant speed, moving forward through some stable medium (in this case, earth) until they strike a denser object (the anomaly) and rebound to the starting point. The return time is measured and the distance to the anomaly calculated. In petroleum seismography, shock waves emanating from an explosive charge set at the bottom of a drill-hole are used. [9]

The labyrinth of leasing

Once oil is found, its ownership must be determined and, if it is to be extracted, a lease on the owner's rights obtained. In North Dakota there is a distinction made between "surface rights" and "mineral rights" to any parcel of land. The former confer the right to develop the surface for any number of purposes, including agriculture; the latter, the right to exploit any underlying mineral resources. Usually a single party owns both the surface and mineral rights to a tract, but sometimes not. If not, the tract is said to have "severed mineral rights." Obviously, complications arise if the owner of one set of rights wants to do something not to the liking of the other. In general, mineral rights are given precedence (the "dominant estate" doctrine); that is, in cases of disagreement the holder of the mineral estate has the right to use as much of the surface as is reasonably necessary for exploration and production. [10]

Ownership of petroleum reserves may also come into dispute. Oil often collects in underground reservoirs which cross the subsurface extension of property boundaries. If a well begins to produce from such a reservoir, the driller often tries to enhance its flowage by injecting gas or water, thus forcing more oil out. As a secondary effect some oil might be pushed across property lines. If this happens adjacent owners of mineral rights suddenly gain an interest in the producing well, for they have become part owners of the newly expanded pool. Disagreements on the extent of ownership and amount of royalties follow. In order to protect the interests of every one involved, the reservoir is "unitized." An engineering study is conducted to find out how much oil is present and how much lies beneath the various tracts; it is followed by a plan of unitization in which royalties and production rights are divided up. [11] A similar situation involving Theodore Roosevelt will be discussed in the next chapter.

The background of coal development

Coal leasing is rather different in that most of the lignite in the Williston Basin is strippable. Therefore, coal production requires ownership of both surface and mineral rights, since strip mining is a surface use of the land. At this writing coal leasing near the park is stalled by a fight over the federal government's plan to lease twenty-four tracts of public land within the Fort Union coal region. All federal leasing since 1976 has been done through competitive bidding. If the Fort Union lease sale takes place and recent trends hold, the successful bidders will likely be large multi-interest corporations—a far cry from the days when federal coal leases were bought by prospectors and individual land speculators. [12]

Private citizens were in fact the first to mine lignite in western North Dakota. Early ranchers fed their coal-burning stoves directly from the many coal veins which crop out in the badlands. While there is no evidence of commercial extraction within what is now the park, some small-scale mining may well have occurred since McKenzie County is underlain by twenty layers of workable coal. Seams are exposed all along the Little Missouri. And in fact there were four coal mines in Medora as of 1925: the High Grade and Demores in the village, and the Red Trail and Little Missouri near the site of the cantonment, just west of the river. [13]

For decades it was thought that coal would be the mainstay of the state's energy production, but since the mid-1970s it has been eclipsed by oil and gas. [14] Yet North Dakota lignite is sought by utilities despite its poor heating value: compared with other classes of coal it is low in sulfur and ash and burns relatively cleanly. [15]

The background of oil and natural gas development

The state has known two oil booms, one in the 1950s and another in the 1970s. The first viable commercial drilling in the Williston Basin began in 1950. By 1953 the talk of western North Dakota was the opening of the Fryburg-Scoria oil field adjacent to the south boundary of the South Unit. It was the first discovery in the Basin outside of the Nesson Anticline and the first to have been found through seismography. [16] Within weeks of the discovery seismic surveys were being conducted around all sides of the South Unit, and near the North Unit too. Not an issue of the local newspapers appeared that did not carry a hopeful story on oil. [17] As the accompanying charts show, while oil production has seldom faltered after an impressive start, the number of new wells—a better indicator of boom conditions—went into the doldrums in the 1960s.

The second boom began after the oil embargo of 1973. Perhaps the best way to convey its amplitude is to recite some statewide statistics. In 1972 fewer than 100 new wells were drilled and only 4 new reservoirs discovered; net oil and gas revenue to the state was $3.2 million. During 1981, producers put in 848 new wells and found 83 new reservoirs; the state's revenue had increased 50 times, to $163.3 million. All this activity has wrought profound social changes in the state, changes that are only hinted at by the estimated twenty-six percent in crease in North Dakota's population between 1970 and 1982. [18]

Although drilling slackened in 1982 because of a glut of oil on the world market, the Williston Basin is still exceptionally productive, with twenty-five to thirty-three percent of all drillings ending in positive strikes of oil; the national average is five to seven percent. In North Dakota the rate of successful wildcat wells (those drilled outside of established fields) has in the past few years run at twice the national average. [19] The western counties are now covered with producing fields and the number of known oil-producing geological structures has increased markedly. For example, in 1978 a large north-south structural trend called the "Billings Nose" was discovered along an imaginary line connecting the three units of the park. In 1974 there was only one oil field between the North and South units; by 1979 four more had been opened along the Billings Nose in the immediate vicinity of the Elkhorn Unit, making Billings County the leading oil producer in the state. [20]

Other mineral development

At the height of the national atomic development program in the 1950s, the small quantities of uranium known to exist in some North Dakota lignite deposits became an attractive object for prospectors. Fervor reached the point where several people asked to explore inside the park (all were turned down). Mining did take place to the east of the South Unit in what were known as the North and South Belfield Areas. Some 300 claims were filed, and ore-grade uraniferous lignite was mined there from 1956 to 1967. Low market prices have since brought an end to commercial production. [21]

No one can say what the future of the Basin's uranium will be. The same is true regarding leonardite, bentonitic clay, halite, and potash, all of which exist in viable amounts. Some analysts have ventured to predict that potash reserves will one day be considered more valuable than those of coal. [22] What is certain is that at least some of these minerals will be mined one day, becoming part of the new plains economics.

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Last Updated: 15-Jan-2004