Theodore Roosevelt
Administrative History
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By what way is the light parted,
Or the east wind scattered upon the earth?
Who hath cleft a channel for the waterflood,
Or a way for the lightning of the thunder;
To cause it to rain on a land where no man is;
On the wilderness, wherein there is no man;
To satisfy the waste and desolate ground;
And to cause the tender grass to spring forth?

—Job 38: 24-27


As in so much else, when it comes to wilderness the northern badlands offer little in the way of clear-cut answers. To some, like Brigadier General Sully, the region was a wilderness of the spirit, an area darkly considered, populated only by raw wind. For Roosevelt, it was the kind of wild country that exhilarates, for the wind breathed there as he himself never could.

The issue of exactly what constitutes wilderness is likewise subjective. Although some would argue that wilderness is delimited by identifiable natural parameters which make it fundamentally different than other land uses, at its heart wilderness is a social concept. It varies across time, place, and people.

If the most stringent definition of wilderness were applied to Theodore Roosevelt, the park would have none. No one has maintained that any part of the park is absolutely pristine—even the remote Achenbach Hills of the North Unit were subjected to scattered cattle grazing before the 1940s. [1] It would be perverse, however, to contend that such marginal uses by semi-permanent human populations have negated the land's essentially wild character. In fact, precisely because they were "the farthest away from the state highway, the park road, park improvements, and other interventions by man," the Achenbachs were recognized as a de facto wilderness by NPS as early as 1937. [2]

Since it is also so difficult of access, much of the other land in the park has, by default, been managed as wilderness. Even though it was prepared at the height of MISSION 66, the 1963 Master Plan recommended keeping most of the park in a wild state. All the South Unit west of the Little Missouri and north of a power line in section 16 was internally zoned as wilderness, as was everything south of the river and more than a half-mile north of the scenic drive in the North Unit. [3] What were lacking were legal safeguards against future development of these areas.

A first wilderness plan

Purposeful consideration of wilderness management in the park awaited the Wilderness Act of 1964. It defined wilderness as "country where natural conditions are still dominant, to be kept free of roads, structures, and mechanical equipment," [4] and required the Park Service to evaluate the feasibility of statutory wilderness in its areas. Members of the Wilderness Society joined NPS personnel for the first organized field studies of Theodore Roosevelt in the late summer and early fall of 1966. The Society's avowed purpose was to preclude further road development. [5] The resulting proposal, timed to coincide with the 1967 Master Plan, called for 23,400 acres to be designated under the terms of the Act. In the South Unit, this consisted of everything west of the river and north of the power line, except for the petrified forest formations (which were subject to a privately-owned surface mineral claim) and a thin corridor along a buckboard trail which was proposed to bisect the area. In the North Unit, practically all land south of the Little Missouri was included. [6]

This working plan soon became entangled in minutiae, such as whether the North Unit should be disqualified because of Project Skywater, a Bureau of Reclamation rain making program begun in McKenzie County in 1964. [7] Worse yet was the arcane logic the park staff was forced to use to keep historical values paramount in a park better suited to management as a natural area. Witness the discomfort of Superintendent Arthur Sullivan over the fate of the North Unit's herd of longhorn cattle:

We contend that the safeguarding of the historical integrity of the park and the presentation and interpretation of park historical values should take precedence over any wilderness values which are incidental to the area. If the North Unit wilderness proposal becomes law, we will forever have closed the door to a freedom of choice in the matter of the longhorn story interpretation. We are loathe to tie the hands of future administrations in this matter and for this reason recommend the North Unit wilderness proposal be withdrawn. [8]

This argument taxes credulousness and it is hard to believe that Sullivan made it entirely in earnest. If anything, the values represented by the longhorns are incidental to the park since they are an allusion to the general conditions prevailing in the badlands open range cattle industry during the 1880s and do not even represent the breeds Roosevelt raised (see Chapter 10).

Thus the informal working plan became bogged down. It was abandoned outright after the enactment in 1970 of the National Environmental Policy Act. Wilderness designation was sure to be a "major" and "controversial" federal undertaking as defined in NEPA, so any plan now had to be able to withstand public comment and an environmental impact assessment. With this in mind, the park staff decided to start anew with a revised, official proposal.

How best to leave the land alone

The new proposal mirrored the philosophy of the 1970 revision of the 1967 Master Plan. It deviated substantially from the informal working plan that prompted Sullivan's comments—in fact, it turned his suggestions upside down, calling for wilderness in the North but not the South Unit. Apparently the presence of the unresolved surface mineral claim and the proposed buckboard trail was thought to put all the area west of the Little Missouri out-of-bounds for wilderness consideration. In contrast, the North Unit proposed wilderness was far greater in extent than that originally planned, including large areas north as well as south of the river.

In addition, the new plan brought up some management concerns sure to be contested during the environmental review. Some thought that dish tanks, the man-made catchments attached to flowing water wells throughout the backcountry, had no place in a wilderness area. Also, the legality of designating river bottom lands was brought into question because of the perpetual stock driveway easement conceded to local ranchers at the park's creation. Finally, despite its fickle flowage the Little Missouri was officially considered a navigable stream. Legally, then, the ownership of the watercourse was vested in the state of North Dakota. [9] This anomaly held potentially disastrous possibilities for wilderness management in the river corridor. Such distractions threatened to turn the whole process as slow and muddy as the river itself in summer.

The disparate treatments planned for the North and South units contributed to a division of public opinion on the proposal. Response meetings were scheduled for December 1970 in Watford City and Medora. They were the first opportunity ever for lay people to formally comment on the management of the national memorial park.

Northwestern North Dakota businesses and civic organizations arrayed themselves against the official proposal as soon as it became known that most of the North Unit might be made a wilderness area. The Watford City Association of Commerce headed the opposition. At its November 1970 meeting, Superintendent James Thompson presented the Service's views on the matter, sparking some "heated discussion." [10] The Association of Commerce then outlined its case in a position paper appearing in the McKenzie County Farmer about a week before the hearings. It is worth examining in detail, not only as a reaction to a specific management proposal but also because it reveals how completely the contradictions inherent in the NPS Organic Act had been internalized by one community. The ten points paraphrased below show that the civic leaders of Watford City were just as equivocal about the purpose of a national park as the theoreticians of the Park Service had been in 1916.

The wilderness plan for the North Unit was opposed because the Association of Commerce thought

1) it would virtually close the park to motoring;

2) the North Unit "should not be limited to the special group who have the physical ability to challenge the wilderness, but should be open to the aged, the children, the physically handicapped, and the motorized tourist. Complete isolation of any part of the north unit is not in keeping with the concept of public use";

3) the rugged topography of the badlands would always preclude full development of the area, and so developable areas near the present park road should not be included in the proposal;

4) even though the Park Service was to be commended for its "preservation of natural resources, guidance in assisting America to seek the beauty of our country, and development in making the tourist comfortable in his leisure," no future restrictive legislation should be passed;

5) the North Unit's role as a tourist attraction was all the more important in the light of North Dakota's declining population, since the North Unit had "unlimited potential for development";

6) wilderness designation would destroy the economic value of the North Unit to the surrounding area;

7) the label "wilderness area" discourages tourism;

8) since Forest Service multiple-use management had been successful in the area, "it is reasonable to assume that the natural beauty of the Park will not be damaged by wild animals, buffalo, long-horned cattle, or humans";

9) wildfires in the wilderness area might "endanger or engulf surrounding farm and ranch land";

10) the national memorial park belonged, first and foremost, to the citizens of North Dakota:" It is their creation; their contributions in time, effort and determination making this reservation of historic and scenic area possible. It appears illogical for Congress to make any pertinent decision without the consent of the residents of the surrounding areas, and the State of North Dakota." [11]

Here we see a national park conceived as a crass money maker (points one, three, five, six, and seven), as a useful but secondary economic entity of the region (points five and nine), as a democratic institution (point two), and as a touchstone of community (point ten). Points three and five contradict each other and point four nearly contradicts itself. Point eight illustrates how poorly the citizens distinguished between the objectives of the Park and Forest services.

Howsoever confused a mandate, the Association of Commerce position received the support of fifty-three Watford City businesses in a full-page advertisement in the Farmer. As an alternative to the NPS plan, the Association called for enlarging Squaw Creek campground, paving the road from the campground to Oxbow Overlook, building a visitor center at Squaw Creek, and installing a new campground south of the river. [12]

Meanwhile, those who thought the NPS wilderness plan did not go far enough were also preparing for the public hearings—principally, the Wilderness Society, which was the most constant champion of badlands wilderness. Yet its arguments turned less on the park's intrinsic wilderness qualifications than on using the plan to tie up future development. In a leaflet announcing the hearings to its membership, the Society called for extensive designation in the South Unit as well as the North. It maintained that "three fully suitable wild areas which are in need of special protection against further development pressures" existed in the South Unit. The NPS decision to propose no wilderness there partly because of the presence of management roadways was not reason enough "to sacrifice a major wilderness opportunity to these insubstantial and temporary features of man's impact." As for the exposed power line running across the South Unit, it "should not be there in any case and can be treated as a temporary non-conforming use to be removed later." The Society saw indulgence at work in the elimination of the wilderness area proposed for the Big and Petrified Forest plateaus as part of the original working plan. "While the Park Service does not recommend this area as wilderness, it has recently come up with the idea of a horse-drawn wagon or buckboard route stabbing directly into the heart of this wild area," it wrote. "Conservationists recommend the Little Missouri Wilderness [the Society's name for all land west of the river] as a certain means of forestalling just this kind of development within valued wild parklands." [13]

The Wilderness Society, it must be said, was willing to adopt a rather loose interpretation of wilderness to meet its anti-development goals. It called for a "Badlands Basin Wilderness" east of the loop drive in the South Unit, including "the magnificent Painted Canyon, a wild area viewed by thousands from an overlook along the Interstate Highway." [14] Apparently this was a wilderness to be easily peered into. The incongruity of asserting that people standing not fifty yards from a highway rest area would be able to experience wilderness seems to have been lost on the Society. One is reminded of Joseph L. Sax's comments on the plan to give visitors a wilderness threshold experience" by putting in a tramway to the top of Guadalupe Peak in Guadalupe Mountains National Park:

Peering at a wilderness from a tramway station . . . is not a wilderness experience; the sense of wilderness is not achieved by standing at its threshold, but by engaging it from within. Not everyone will seize the chance to experience wilderness, even in the modest dose that Guadalupe Park presents. The opportunity can and should be offered as a choice, to be accepted or rejected, but it should not be falsified or domesticated. [15]

The public hearings

Predictably, the Watford City public hearing was dominated by anti-wilderness sentiment. One of the few who spoke in favor was a Sierra Club representative who accused the opposition of harboring "a narrow commercial attitude." Superintendent Thompson also defended the NPS plan, saying that the developed sections of the North Unit could support five times the current visitor use. [16]

The Watford City session was most notable, though, for the glimpse it gave of the relationship between the people of the northwestern North Dakota (and eastern Montana) and the North Unit. More so than in Medora, the people around Watford City considered the North Unit "their" park, the scene of family reunions, Sunday picnics, and the spring clean-up. They saw the Park Service agenda of ecosystem monitoring, resource management, and extended recreational use as at best irrelevant, and at worst antithetical, to local desires and needs.

The comments of the residents at this hearing leave the striking impression that they believed an implied compact existed between themselves and the National Park Service regarding the establishment and subsequent operation of the North Unit. "The residents of McKenzie County have been very generous in making available their land for the use of the general public," said one Watford City civic leader. [17] This revealing remark suggests that resentment of the federal government still lingered over the submarginal land purchase program of the Depression years. Even though most of the land ended up as national grasslands, to the benefit of local stockmen, the fact that the government had acquired title while everyone was down and out on their luck still struck some as unfair. [18]

When the North Unit was established in 1948 the local people seem to have also established a unilateral, unwritten compact with the Park Service: manage and develop the park for tourism, provide an economic return to make up for the land grab, and you will be supported. For a long time NPS acted as if it had agreed to such a bargain. But now, with the wilderness proposal, it must have seemed to local residents that the Service was reneging. In calling the NPS plan "ill-advised," State Senator J. Garvin Jacobson voiced the thoughts of many when he characterized it as a betrayal of the economic benefits which had been implicitly promised to area residents. [19]

Even more infuriating to the local citizens was the advocacy of out-of-state environmentalists from the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club, people who understood little of the historical basis of the North Unit and nothing of the generation of expectations that arose from it. In summing up for the opposition, Lee M. Stenehjem, representing the Association of Commerce, spoke as the archetypal self-reliant North Dakotan:

We fail to see that North Dakota needs an outside man from Washington [referring to Douglas Scott of the Wilderness Society] to come into our State to create division among us, when no division has ever existed before. This man comes into our State for the first time and becomes an instant expert on our ecology, on our economy, and what's good for our people. North Dakota people can be trusted to take good care of our environment, as our people are doing today and have done in the past. This country hasn't always been easy to live in . . . but our people are a strong people and have practiced conservation of soil, water, and the natural resources, so that they will leave—they will leave for their children and their grandchildren a better land and environment than when they found it. [20]

In Medora the next day the situation was reversed. Of the eighteen statements made, only one was against wilderness designation. This is partly explained when one remembers that the NPS plan called for no wilderness areas at all in the South Unit. [21]

Some of the more sophisticated comments came from two North Dakota State University students. Dale Anderson invoked economic theory: he pointed out that, because wilderness values cannot be included in conventional pricing systems, such land had always been exploited as a "free good" to the point of scarcity. Now, just because of that scarcity, wilderness was attaining a tangible economic value. Extending these thoughts, Robert L. Burgess emphasized the monetary benefits of keeping wilderness areas as storehouses of genetic material and as buffers of "healthy land" between areas of depleted resources, land essential to maintaining biological energy flows. [22] And in another of the competing views on the purpose of national parks, the North Dakota Natural Science Society came out in favor of the Wilderness Society's proposal to create extensive statutory wilderness in the South Unit, asserting that "national parks were not designed nor created to satisfy economic desires and indeed if they do cater to the economic whims of the populace, then they will, in effect, destroy the very meaning, intent and purpose of their creation." [23]

Leading opinions

However, what proved to be the most influential single comment was offered not at the hearings but in a letter a month later from Governor William Guy. He wrote to express his basic approval of the NPS proposal, with one exception: he favored a wilderness area in the South Unit west of the Little Missouri River. In contrast to Watford City opinion, Guy thought wilderness designation "would cause a dramatic enhancement of the park as a tourist attraction" and would "strengthen the position" of Theodore Roosevelt "among all national parks in the nation." For Guy, wilderness affirmed North Dakota's western heritage. It was also an antidote to the image of the state as nothing but one big wheat field. [24]

Guy's ideas struck Superintendent Thompson as reasonably sound." Writing to the regional director toward the end of the public comment period, Thompson could find no good reason to exclude from consideration the South Unit west of the river because of old management roads or a tentative buckboard trail. He urged expanding the official plan to include the area Guy wanted. But Thompson did not go further and endorse the Wilderness Society's proposed wilderness areas east of the river, land hard by Interstate 94:

We have a fear that much of our wilderness study program in this area is overly legalistic in approach. It would appear that the criteria for wilderness must be interpreted on the ground as well as on maps of the area. In the wide open Great Plains Grasslands and Breaks, we believe that the wilderness concepts and ingredients should be viewed differently than in the forest and mountain areas. Without the shielding influence of trees, sights, sounds and solitude become highly significant and it would seem that the mere fact of lands being undeveloped should not necessarily qualify them for wilderness designation.

Thompson confessed to being "actually astounded at the groundswell of public interest in wilderness in North Dakota. . . ." [25]

At the time of his letter, he also was aware that three-quarters of the written comments coming in to the hearing officer favored enlarging the area proposed for wilderness by the Park Service. [26] He advised the regional director that NPS would do well to align themselves with Governor Guy. "If the result of the Wilderness Hearings is a 'no change' recommendation," Thompson wrote, "the Service will be viewed in North Dakota as being unresponsive to high public involvement, and as much oblivious to reasoned arguments as to emotional rhetoric." [27]

In December 1971 the preliminary wilderness recommendation was published. Disdaining Watford City sentiment (presumably the "emotional rhetoric" of which Thompson wrote), the NPS plan for the North Unit went through virtually unchanged, calling for 15,515 acres of wilderness. In the South Unit, however, an 8200-acre wilderness west of the river now had the agency's official endorsement. [28]

This preliminary recommendation was itself soon re-drafted. In the North Unit, biologically important riverine habitat along the Little Missouri corridor was added after it was determined that the stock driveway easement was not a wilderness disqualification. The river proper was still left out because it was considered state-owned and used as a frozen road in the winter. [29] Land set aside for a one-eighth-mile-wide buffer zone just inside the boundary fence of the park was also added, as were 520 acres below the rim of the upland prairie plateaus. [30] The addition of eleven hundred acres contiguous to the proposed South Unit wilderness brought the revised NPS recommendation to a total of 28,335 acres—a little less than half of all the roadless acreage in the park. [31]

Refining the wilderness

The publication of this revised recommendation in August 1972 prompted a three-way debate between the Wilderness Society, the Midwest Regional Office, and the staff at Theodore Roosevelt. That autumn the Wilderness Society sent a series of detailed letters to Omaha, objecting to various technical aspects of the recommendation. Basically, it could not understand why the land around the "ranch access" road near Sperati Point was left out. It questioned not only the road's placement on the map, but its very existence, calling it "a trail of less than 'unimproved dirt' standard." At stake were "significant rim-top lands, offering important contrast in physiography, ecology and scenic value to the basin wildlands to the south and east." It argued that "protection of this small but significant area against any future intrusion is important. . . ." The Society also accused the Service of unconscionable Procrastination in responding to its "specific challenge." [32]

The delay was in reality caused by internal debate over how to answer the Wilderness Society. The public affairs division of the Midwest Regional Office had pre pared an explanation not entirely satisfactory to John Lancaster, who had just taken over as Theodore Roosevelt's superintendent The draft response letter that Lancaster received for review conceded the map's inaccuracy, but defended excluding the prairie plateaus from wilderness designation since the road had been created by man-made construction. [33] What Lancaster objected to was the draft letter's assertion that "the road could have been more precisely labeled 'ranching access road' than 'ranch access.' The access is to ranching activities and improvements, such as the fencing and watering installations at or near the boundary of the park." The letter left the impression that while the road did not lead directly to a ranch, it did give access to an important leased area of the Little Missouri National Grasslands. But Lancaster pointed out that according to the Forest Service such an implication would be "totally false," for the road was actually receiving no appreciable use. "There is no reason for this road," he concluded. [34] Eventually the Midwest Regional Office gave in and the land in question was included in the final North Unit wilderness.

Months were spent wrangling over this, all of three hundred acres, showing how the nature of the debate had changed since the end of 1970, going from consideration of the broad effects of wilderness to the particulars of its establishment. The Wilderness Society and the Service were arguing in technicalities. Left far behind were the comments and opinions so earnestly put forward by local residents. "What happened to all the papers and information presented at the hearings by the people of Western North Dakota is likely a good question," wondered the McKenzie County Farmer. "Efforts of North Dakota residents in the immediate area of the park were tossed aside and the recommendations of the 'Ecology Party' were taken." [35]

By 1973 the basic wilderness configuration was set. The only evident change reported in the final environment al impact statement, which appeared that summer, was the inclusion of the petrified forest in the South Unit wilderness proposal, the title to all the mineral rights there having been secured by the government. [36] Otherwise there was the usual presentation of alternatives, spiced only by new considerations of the propriety of dish tanks and rain making in a wilderness. [37]

The last stage of the designation process began after the publication of the environmental impact statement. Bills to create statutory wilderness areas were introduced in three successive congressional sessions beginning in 1975; all failed. The measure finally passed after it was included in the legislative portmanteau known as the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978. [38] About forty two percent of the park—29,920 acres—is now legally protected as wilderness. Only one thread was left dangling: in its report on the National Parks and Recreation Act, the House of Representatives requested NPS to evaluate one last time the Wilderness Society's position on the South Unit. During the hearings on the Act, both the Society and the Sierra Club contended that 28,000 more acres should be added east of the Little Missouri because the land there was already wild in character and grasslands were poorly represented in the Wilderness Preservation System. Moreover, the Society argued that the Endangered American Wilderness Act, by allowing designation of marginally wild areas near large cities, negated NPS's argument that extraneous noise from the interstate highway and the Burlington Northern Railroad disqualified the eastern South Unit. [39]

Its interpretation of the new law was not shared by the Park Service. In the re-evaluation of the South Unit, which appeared in 1980, NPS found no legal precedent for a look-see wilderness in the Endangered American Wilderness Act. On the contrary, the agency again relied almost exclusively upon aesthetic intrusions in making its case against the Wilderness Society's position. "In the bottom of the coulees it may be possible to escape the sight of motor vehicles," the NPS report stated, "but the sound is inescapable, destroying those 'outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation' identified in the Wilderness Act [of 1964] as one of the earmarks of wilderness. While the imprint of man's work may not be noticeable, the sound of his work is ever present." With the North Unit given over almost entirely to wilderness, the eastern South Unit remained "the only area left in the park where developments to accommodate the average day use park visitor can take place." The escalation of energy development in Billings County since the mid-1970s set the seal on NPS's conclusions. With all the new oil, gas, and coal extraction operations adjacent to the South Unit, there were now "far too many conditions present outside the park area which negatively impact and otherwise preclude wilderness designation." [40] With that the debate ended.

To place Theodore Roosevelt's designation process in perspective, to understand why the idea of a wilderness in the open spaces of North Dakota was slow to take hold, we might profitably turn to some observations on the topic by Roderick Nash, the conservation historian. In the preface to the second edition of his Wilderness and the American Mind, Nash discusses the sinister connotations of wilderness, the fear modern people have always had of untamed country. He traces these attitudes from their sources—which predate even ancient Near East writings and legend—to latter-day North America, where "the pioneers' obsession was to clear the land, to remove the vision-obscuring trees and vines, to bring light into darkness." Wilderness, Nash says, has traditionally been associated with trees, and "the heart of the bias against wilderness" is "the ancient association between security and sight":

In this connection it is interesting to note that many accounts of westward migration in North America contain expressions of relief on emerging from the Eastern forest wilderness to the opening of the Great Plains. All at once the pioneers could see, and their spirits immediately brightened. . . . The Midwestern plains, to be sure, were just as devoid of civilization as the Eastern forests, but from the pioneers' perspective they were a different kind of environment. This is evident from the fact that the term "wilderness" was seldom applied to the grasslands of the Middle West. [41]

The same perceptual barrier may have had its role in the Theodore Roosevelt wilderness designation process.

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Last Updated: 15-Jan-2004