Theodore Roosevelt
Administrative History
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All of Theodore Roosevelt National Park lies well into what used to he called, erroneously, The Great American Desert—that is, the area between the Rockies and the 100th meridian. [1] It is dry country, sometimes exceptionally so. As we have seen, drought was one of the factors which set about the land purchase program and can therefore be regarded as an indirect cause of the park's creation.

It is understandable that little water resources work has been done at Theodore Roosevelt. The only important surface water in the park is the Little Missouri River. It drains 4750 square miles of western North Dakota, but has no large tributaries; there are only a few other perennial creeks in the park. [2] The foremost concern about the river is pollution. Nevertheless, even given the recent oil boom there has been only one known incident, a 6000-barrel spill in 1971 forty miles upriver (south) from Medora. Fast response from the Shell Oil Company, and a fortuitous downpour, dispersed the oil enough to make its presence difficult to detect downriver in the park. [3] Other isolated surges in pollutant levels [4] are perhaps related to the wide fluctuation in the Little Missouri's flowage, but no one can be sure until a comprehensive water resources management program is developed for the park. [5]

A second concern is that the river might be dammed. By law it is a state scenic river, wild and free-flowing, with a commission to coordinate its management. While it would take another act of the state legislature to allow it to be dammed, the most recent North Dakota water plan proposes doing so for the sake of irrigation. This plan is opposed by the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission, which claims that ever-present silt and bentonite make the water useless for crop growing, quite apart from a dam's effect on recreational interests and riparian ecology. [6]

Finally, there is the nettlesome issue of just who owns the Little Missouri as it flows through the park. The question turns on whether or not the watercourse is legally navigable. The state contends it is, and has in the past been backed by the Army Corps of Engineers. [7] Up until 1983 its position carried the day: North Dakota was adjudged owner of both the water and submerged land. But in May of that year the Supreme Court struck down the rulings that vested ownership in the state, sending the case back to lower courts for disposition on procedural grounds. [8] The case referred to began in 1978 when North Dakota sued the Department of the Interior over the Bureau of Land Management's issuing of oil and gas leases on river bottoms. The Park Service's main interest is not ownership per se but the extent to which winter recreational activities, such as snowmobiling and motorcycling, can be controlled on the frozen river. [9]

External threats to the quality of the park's ground water have recently been acknowledged. Drilling for oil and natural gas takes place outside the park but within its aquifer, giving rise to the risk of depletion or contamination. [10] For example, the South Unit draws most of its drinking water from the Hell Creek aquifer, which at its deepest (nineteen hundred feet) is easily within the range of oil well drilling. [11] The staff hopes the issue will soon be addressed as part of a park-wide water policy plan.

Fire management

Given the region's low rainfall, it is surprising to learn that there have been no extensive wildfires in the immediate park area. From 1949 to 1981 only thirty-six were recorded, usually caused by lightning strikes. [12] There have not been many additional human-caused fires. Most burned just outside the boundaries of the park, such as those started by sparks from trains running along the Burlington Northern line in Billings County. Park personnel are often called to fight them, and NPS has a fire control agreement with the Forest Service for the Little Missouri National Grasslands. [13]

None of the fires within the park ever consumed more than three hundred acres. [14] This can be attributed partly to a long-standing policy of complete suppression. Since 1949 fire has been all but eliminated from Theodore Roosevelt's ecosystem. For years the management rationale was that "forest and range fires constitute one of the greatest menaces to National Parks and Monuments. Due to the great natural and historic values in this Memorial Park, fire control takes precedence over all other activities except the saving or safeguarding of human life." [15] At the core of this reasoning was a political reality: "natural fires must be extinguished within the Park where possible because of the danger to ranches outside the Park." [16]

The rigid approach applied to all fires, including those with little potential to damage private interests. By adopting it, the Service was once put in the awkward position of trying to get rid of the single most popular tourist attraction in the park.

In 1951 lightning ignited a coal vein southwest of Buck Hill. This phenomenon, unusual in recent years but historically an important force in shaping the geology of the badlands, soon became controversial. The Service wanted to put out the fire as it would any other, but, as a park report of the time put it, "local outside interests heard of the burning coal spectacle and publicized it as a tourist attraction. When these interests learned of the intentions of the Service to extinguish the fire, they exerted political influence and managed to temporarily stop suppression action. It has been decided that further study of the interpretive and aesthetic qualities of the lignite fire will be made before any further action is taken to suppress it." After reconsideration—and continued pressure from the Greater North Dakota Association—NPS agreed to let this "example of a geological process" run its course. [17]

A draft fire management plan was drawn up in 1974 that would have re-established wildfire to the park, but it never went beyond a preliminary stage. [18] Today the park continues its policy of fighting all fires as soon as possible. But the new Natural Resources Management Plan recognizes that "this tradition of suppression may be leading towards the creation of homogenous vegetation zones and may have some influence on normal plant succession within the park." It proposes returning to a natural fire regime. Aside from improving nutrient cycling, more natural burning is seen as a discouragement to the proliferation of exotic plant species. [19]

Two recent developments militate for a revised wild fire plan. A study done in 1982 by the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center showed that lightning-strike fires within Theodore Roosevelt consumed an average of about twenty acres when unfought, with rain or natural burn-out being most often responsible for extinguishment. [20] These small extents suggest that fears of a conflagration may be groundless. Second, the designation of wilderness in 1978 has changed the rule-making picture considerably. Park Service policy now treats lightning fires within wilderness areas as natural phenomena to be left to burn under most circumstances, and so for Theodore Roosevelt to continue to fight fires regardless of location or provenance is self-contradictory. [21]

Vegetation management

Until the advent of total ecosystem strategies for national park management, vegetation received scant attention at Theodore Roosevelt Plant communities were left alone, mostly undifferentiated as to whether they were indigenous or exotic. [22] Occasional qualitative habitat typologies and single-species studies made up vegetation research. [23]

As might be surmised, the fertility of soil in arable parts of the North Dakota badlands was seriously degraded by homesteading in the early 20th century. In some instances overgrazing defoliated sites. Such areas now within the park have been allowed to revegetate, yet this hardly qualifies as active vegetation management. [24]

That has come only recently, as the park has moved away from case-by-case reactive management toward a strategy of managing "all resources together, considering the natural processes that are at work and the interactions of biotic and abiotic systems." [25] This total ecosystem strategy has particularly relevant applications in vegetation work, since plant life is at once important to both living and non-living processes: for instance, ground cover serves simultaneously as forage and as a barrier to erosion.

One goal of the new strategy is to explicitly promote the existence of plants indigenous to the northern mixed prairie. While attaining an absolutely unsullied flora is impossible, the park does now actively discourage certain exotic species. Twenty-three have been identified within the park. Some are innocuous, but others, in particular sweet clover (Melilotus spp.) and leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula), invade even undisturbed sites and compete with native plants for sunlight, nutrients, and moisture. As of 1985, four—Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense), Russian and spotted knapweed (genus Centaurea), and leafy spurge—were being actively controlled. [26]

Spurge infestation presents a classic management dilemma. Left unchecked, it threatens communities of indigenous vegetation resulting in an as-yet unmeasured, but certainly adverse, effect on the mixed prairie. The only method of control proven effective is direct application of the herbicide Tordon. Also known as "agent white," this is a chemical so toxic that one formulation (Tordon 212; picloram +2, 4, D) was banned from all national park lands in 1970. Tordon 212 was apparently used on a limited basis prior to that date to fight selected patches of spurge at Theodore Roosevelt, [27] but all noxious weed control was suspended from 1970 to 1975 while NPS awaited approval of an alternative herbicide. [28]

Widespread spraying (and later, bead-treating) of spurge began in 1975 and has continued since; still, funding allows for only a small fraction of the infested area to be treated. Yet even if money for the program were increased, the unknown environmental effects of the herbicide would probably serve to constrain its use. [29] Currently the formulation Tordon 2K (picloram 4-amino-3,5,6-trichloropicolinic acid) is used. It is open to debate whether applying Tordon, even in small amounts, is worthwhile. Aside from possible environmental damage, the chemical's efficacy is limited by dry weather (1976 and 1981 were bad years for application); by the fact that leafy spurge enters the park via the drainages of the tributaries of the Little Missouri, drainages which have their headlands in heavily infested adjacent areas outside the park; and by evidence of a spillover killing of plants near sprayed areas. [30] These points seem to argue against the park's application of Tordon, but without clear-cut choices the Natural Resources Management Plan is left to endorse the status quo and hope that one of the many current university studies of the problem can come up with an environmentally sound control.

In the meantime Theodore Roosevelt is caught between the Service's philosophical, ecological, and financial constraints on the use of herbicides, and the desire to comply with North Dakota's noxious weed control law—to be in step with the surrounding agricultural community.

"The Service has many more, largely legitimate, constraints upon the use of herbicides and pesticides than is understood by the mainly agriculturally based population of the state," declares a recent park report. "We have spurge in the parks and it has come from outside the parks. We may have bans put on our chemical treatment of the weed in the parks and when this happens we will be at serious odds with state law regarding the control of it . . . . The natural process philosophy of the Service will at that point again be in direct conflict with official state policy. Part of the point is that even among our closest friends of the parks there often is still a failure to understand the philosophy of not tampering with the flora and fauna of the parks indiscriminately." [31]

Geological research

Overall, rather little has been accomplished in this field, though not for lack of potential topics. [32] One of the most immediately attractive is the petrified forest formations in the extreme northwestern South Unit. They have been promoted locally as a tourist attraction, [33] but remain not at all well-known outside of North Dakota, likely because of their relative inaccessibility. The formations have been the object of sporadic research. [34]

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Last Updated: 15-Jan-2004