Theodore Roosevelt
Administrative History
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One of the most troublesome of the park proposals of these years and later was for the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. . . .

—John Ise


For some in North Dakota, the national park idea was nothing more than a money idea.

"Twenty-five hundred miles of startling scenic beauty," blared the advertisement by the National Parks Highway Association of Jamestown, North Dakota. The year was 1927; the group, a collection of entrepreneurs looking to build tourism in a state with none to speak of; the advertisement, a pamphlet touting a motoring route which would link four of the finest parks then in existence. The Association's logo consisted of four medallions, one each for Yellowstone, Glacier, Crater Lake, and Mount Rainier, arrayed around a larger central one bearing the legend "Roosevelt National Park." But inscribed in tiny letters above that legend was the one-word rub: "proposed." [1]

The National Parks Highway Association's unabashed promotion of a national park for North Dakota, one that could stand alongside a Yellowstone, was a logical consequence of the attitude prevailing in the National Park Service during its first years. Stephen Tyng Mather, the agency's first director, wanted the Park Service (created in 1916) to cater to the devotees of the recently-born craze for automobile touring. No doubt sharing Mather's desire to build as broad a base of support as possible for the new agency, Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane helped set the tone by proclaiming national parks "the people's playgrounds." It was admitted that, for most of these motorists, "the parks were merely the latest travel sensation, serving as objectives for the passion for the long road, which only then was finding its larger expression." Nevertheless, their motivations were of secondary concern to Mather, who had to put people in the parks if he were to demonstrate the need for a National Park Service. He invited the newly mobile public-at-leisure into the parks by endorsing schemes such as the National Park-to-Park Highway, a 3500-mile loop originating in Denver. [2] The National Parks Highway Association of North Dakota was simply following a respected example.

Yet almost as soon as he had begun, Mather was forced to back away from encouraging every park booster group which came along. He was quickly engulfed with park plans that did not come anywhere near the high standards he wanted for the System. Mather realized it would take a good portion of the agency's and his own personal time to sift out park proposals from profit proposals. [3] Unfortunately for the North Dakota park promoters, their efforts on behalf of a Roosevelt national park got underway in earnest just as the NPS retrenchment was taking place.

The retreat was not unnoticed by the most important of the park boosters, the Roosevelt Memorial National Park Association. As early as 1924 it discerned "a well-established policy in the western states to discourage the creation of more national parks" because existing ones were supposedly in dire need of improvement. In the sudden absence of encouragement, the Roosevelt Memorial National Park Association approached its own national park idea along a number of tacks. [4]

National parks, it thought, were devices to promote social equity:

This policy [of discouragement] must be changed. Federal parks are for all the people, not alone for those who have the time and means to travel far. Some state must lead in the attempt to break down the restriction. Evidently that duty is to fall to North Dakota. [5]

Or scenic wonderlands:

Evidently in the opinion of the Park Service authorities, the question of chief importance is whether or not this region possesses an adequate scenic asset. . . . A part of the [Association's] park plan is the construction of a state and national highway from Marmarth to Watford City following the edge of the [Little Missouri River] canyon with many observation points from which the beauty of the Bad Lands may be appreciated. [6]

Or health facilities of a kind with sanitariums and public hospitals:

The people who most need such facilities cannot afford either the time or the means to visit them. . . . The state and nation must co-operate to provide health facilities adequate to the needs of the people. [7]

In these statements the Roosevelt Memorial National Park Association (later, the Greater North Dakota Association) fleshed out three themes which have recurred throughout the history of the park.

First, its social equity argument was less about making the fruits of federalism available to everyone than it was a statement of pique. The Association, which presumed to speak for all the people of North Dakota, felt the Park Service was slighting it because it represented a sparsely-populated farm state. Such feelings of inferiority are perhaps just now beginning to recede with the redesignation of Theodore Roosevelt as a National Park: when the state had only a National Memorial Park, it seemed to say something about where North Dakota stood, not only with the Park Service, but with the rest of the nation.

Second, disagreements over the scenic quality of the North Dakota badlands have persisted since Brigadier General Alfred Sully, marching through the region on a punitive expedition against Indians, reportedly called it "hell with the fires out." When the naturalist writer John Burroughs visited the badlands with President Roosevelt just after the turn of the century, his reaction was, surprisingly, just as simplistic. He found the region "utterly demoralized and gone to the bad—flayed, fantastic, treeless, a riot of naked clay slopes, chimney-like buttes and dry coulees." A century later these remarks still have to be lived down. Scenic value has always been an important and sometimes decisive criterion used in selecting new national parks. [8] But it is undeniably subjective, and decisions which rely upon it leave themselves open to endless debate.

Third, when the Roosevelt Memorial National Park Association placed national parks alongside hospitals and sanitariums, it was hinting at an understanding of the intangible benefits of national parks. When Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park was finally created in 1947 and 1948, most of its supporters still valued it solely as a marketable commodity. Yet a few of the more insightful saw it primarily as a necessity for health, a needed contrast to civilization, a refuge for the spirit.

But the primacy of the materialistic park idea has never been challenged. When thoughts of a national park for North Dakota first gained currency around 1920, the ranchers were the only local group that might reasonably have been expected to oppose the idea. Yet at first they were rather favorable, hoping that a park might draw enough dudes to their ranches to provide a supplementary income. [9] But as soon as they learned of the size of the first formal proposal, of the amount of grazing land that would be needed, they became dead set against it.

Without their support, even the "strong agitation" the park promoters used to advance the establishment of a reserve covering most of the watershed of the Little Missouri River could not turn the issue. One early plan called for a park of 1,300,000 acres, or 2030 square miles. If approved, it would have been the third largest national park then in existence. But such grandiose proposals included far, far too much good stock land for the liking of the ranchers. Once opposed, they stayed that way, and rejected another plan of 1927 that called for a much smaller park: a strip of land twelve to fourteen miles wide extending ninety miles along the Little Missouri from Marmarth to the eastern swing of the river south of Watford City. The ultimate strength of the ranchers' political position is demonstrated by the fact that, once in 1927 and three times in 1929, the North Dakota Legislative Assembly went on record favoring a park, yet could not translate its sentiment into any effective action at all. [10]

The badlands New Deal

But economics, not politics, dictated the future to many ranchers as the agricultural depression of the 1920s became the Great Depression of the 1930s. In western North Dakota, many ranches were homesteads that had only recently been established. Between 1900 and 1910 the rural population, number of farms, and amount of land in agriculture increased fourfold in that part of the state. Growth continued until the farm price collapse of 1920. Things only got worse in the early 1930s. Average annual income for farms in North Dakota fell from $2775 to $804 in the space of two years, [11] and many homestead claims in the badlands were abandoned outright. A good number of other ranchers looked to sell out, and at just about any price. But there were no buyers in the private sector for this "submarginal" land.

It took the election of another Roosevelt to set in motion the events that led to the creation of the park. About a year into Franklin D. Roosevelt's first term, his new Resettlement Administration was given authority to buy land of little agricultural value. Under this program many of the homesteaders in western North Dakota were only too happy to get rid of acreage that was barely productive. There was no official pressure to sell, but one badlands rancher recalled that "some of the land buyers were kind of aggressive in maybe wanting to make a name for themselves on the basis of how much land they bought. . ." [12]

In western North Dakota land was acquired mainly for setting up leased grazing and rehabilitation areas under the Department of Agriculture. Indeed, most of what was purchased under the auspices of the Resettlement Act is now part of the Little Missouri National Grasslands. Part of the new federal holdings was earmarked for a park, though.

This is not to say that the Roosevelt administration sought these reserved lands for the National Park System; far from it. It wanted to turn them into a state park by means of technical assistance from NPS. In the 1920s Mather had promoted the creation of more state parks (primarily as a way to deflect inferior national park proposals) but he did not allow the Service to take a direct role. Franklin Roosevelt's secretary of the interior, Harold L. Ickes, was far more of an activist than any Mather had worked with. Ickes was determined to expand the federal presence in conservation and used the newly-formed Civilian Conservation Corps to involve the National Park Service in developing state park systems. So in 1934 a cooperative agreement to start a Roosevelt Regional Park Project was signed by the Resettlement Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, NPS, and the state of North Dakota. [13] Site development was begun immediately by the CCC.

It was always the intention of the Park Service that the project should lead to a state park. [14] Circumstances worked against this outcome, however. The magnitude of the submarginal purchase put the amount of land beyond the administrative capability of the State Historical Society, which was then responsible for North Dakota state parks. Even though the State Historical Society was nominally sponsoring the CCC camps, actual development of facilities was acknowledged to be a federal undertaking, just as NPS directed the buy-out from its Omaha office. [15] The federal government was alone in referring to the area as the "Roosevelt Regional State Park." [16]

Clearly, the administration was amenable to using federal funds and expertise for getting state park projects off the ground, and it made little sense to have the Park Service offer its help piecemeal, one state at a time. Perhaps instructed by the example of the Roosevelt project, early in 1935 it was decided to standardize NPS assistance through the Recreational Demonstration Area (RDA) program.

As it had in North Dakota, the Service would buy certain lands around the country considered unsuitable to agriculture but with demonstrable recreation potential. The RDA program comprised four types of projects: highway rest areas, vacation and recreation areas near cities, state park system extensions, and areas eligible for and worthy of inclusion in the National Park System. [17] Roosevelt Recreational Demonstration Area was one of the earliest of the forty-six that were eventually created. [18] Still uncertain was how much land would be set aside for the Roosevelt RDA and whether the state would accept responsibility for its operation.

Lingering thoughts of a ninety-mile strip of parklands were quashed by local cattlemen. As one rather modestly recalled, "it was just be a stroke of luck"—and a timely visit to the Omaha acquisition office—"that we kept from buying all the land from Medora clear up to Watford City for a park." [19] Even so, something over 60,000 acres of submarginal land was purchased by the Service for the RDA, lying in two unconnected blocks roughly corresponding to today's North and South units. [20] Most of the land sold for about $2.00 an acre, making it by far the least expensive purchased under the RDA program. [21]

Although they were being run by the Park Service, the RDAs were not considered part of the National Park System. In June 1942 Congress cleared the way for the transfer of all RDAs from federal to state ownership, and it seemed that the Roosevelt Regional Park would finally become a state park. But only two months later President Roosevelt approved a list of RDAs reserved to further study for possible inclusion in the National Park System. Roosevelt RDA was on it.

Why did the administration grant this "special status" to an area in which its own park agency had never professed a certain interest? One reason was that the North Dakota state government had made it clear that it did not want the Roosevelt project as a state park. Russell Reid, the superintendent of the State Historical Society, had already publicly stated that North Dakota was in the project only "until plans for Federal land purchase programs are completed"; it was the Society's hope that the two units of the RDA would "eventually become part of the National Park System and be designated as national monuments." [22]

Another reason was that despite its general tone of discouragement, the Service had several times extended the possibility of including the North Dakota badlands somewhere in the System. According to John Ise, author of what is probably the most comprehensive history of the National Park System, in the late 1920s the Park Service "was fighting the Roosevelt project'—presumably, the 1927 plan put forward by the Roosevelt Memorial National Park Association. If true, this makes subsequent events all the more puzzling. For instance, the report of a fact-gathering tour of the area in 1928—attended by Mather, among others—led to NPS cautiously, and tentatively, recommending national monument status. Four years later Mather's successor, Horace Albright, echoed this opinion in a speech, implying that becoming a national monument was the first step toward national park designation. [23]

But political considerations were undoubtedly at the core of the decision to grant special status to the Roosevelt RDA. The Service could not afford to antagonize Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota, who at the time the special status list came out was the ranking minority member on both the Public Lands and Surveys Committee (now known as the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee) and the Subcommittee on Interior Appropriations of the Senate. He was the first committed congressional supporter of a Theodore Roosevelt national park. Nye organized the 1928 fact-finding tour and influenced the congressmen who went along to report favorably for full national park status. [24] Nye was known as "a sound advisor to the Park Service on legislative matters" [25] and his opinions were well taken by the agency.

A newer champion of a national park for North Dakota was Representative William Lemke. Remembered today primarily for his association with the Non-Partisan League and his failed candidacy for president of the United States in 1936, Lemke has also been credited with single-handedly securing the enabling legislation for the national memorial park. [26] This is an overstatement, but only a slight one. Although less riveting than some of his more flamboyant exploits, his work for a park is certainly a large part of his political legacy. Oddly enough, Lemke was no admirer of Theodore Roosevelt. [27]

Lemke's first proposal

It is likely that the Park Service would have preferred to keep the Roosevelt RDA languishing in special status limbo until such time as it could make North Dakota see the wisdom of taking over. Newton Drury, who had been director of NPS since 1940, did not think the northern badlands could sustain national park status. In any case, as long as World War II lasted, Drury had no choice but to douse Roosevelt park proposals: he was busy enough trying to dole out a budget that had been cut eighty-five percent since the beginning of his tenure. [28]

For his part, Lemke hoped to get a park bill past the talking stage, to at least get it to a committee hearing. He laid the table for serious consideration when he persuaded the chairman of the House Public Lands Committee, J. Hardin Peterson of Florida, to inspect the badlands in July 1944. It had to be demonstrated to NPS and the rest of the government that this part of North Dakota was of national interest and not merely the subject of local firecracker-stand exaggeration. Peterson was convinced. After the trip he and Lemke drafted a resolution asking the Department of the Interior to support the creation of a national monument on the lands of the south part of the recreational demonstration area. Peterson's support on the committee ensured a hearing for North Dakota park legislation.

This pleased the Service not a bit. It had been unwilling to repudiate the local and congressional interests, but in truth it did not really seem to want the northern badlands in the National Park System in any capacity. With Lemke poised to introduce a national park bill in the next session of Congress, it was imperative for the Service to move quickly and bring about a final disposition of the Roosevelt project.

Having failed to make the area a state park, in September 1944 NPS suddenly revived an old possibility: turn it into a wildlife refuge. This was an idea that had been briefly considered in the late 1930s. [29] Indeed, 8500 acres of the north part of the RDA had been "set aside because of its especial fitness for a refuge in contrast to the rest of the park land," [30] but it is unlikely that any active wildlife management ever took place as a result. Regardless, the Park Service seized the idea and by January 1945 came to an agreement in principle with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to turn over the entire RDA. In June of that year President Harry S Truman released the RDA from its special status, clearing the way for a permanent transfer. [31]

A more direct rebuff to Lemke could not be imagined, but, undaunted, he introduced a national park enabling bill and brought it to hearings before the sympathetic Peterson and his Committee on Public Lands in November 1945 and January 1946. The members were asked to consider making a national park out of 36,000 acres from the south part of the newly-proposed Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge, and to release the rest of the old RDA acreage to grazing. [32]

Much of Lemke's persuasion at the November hearing went toward disabusing the committee members of the notion that the area under consideration contained Mount Rushmore. [33] After the two Dakotas and their respective badlands had been distinctly separated, testimony settled down to an examination of the process that was apparently leading to the creation of a national wildlife refuge. The highlight was Lemke's questioning of Fish and Wildlife's director, Ira Gabrielson, and NPS's Drury.

Gabrielson could not be drawn out regarding the behind-the-scenes negotiations over the area's status. He contended that FWS had targeted the North Dakota badlands for possible acquisition even before the start of the submarginal land purchases, and reminded the committee that the Department of the Interior's official position was in favor of making the Roosevelt RDA into a wildlife refuge. [34] Drury—apparently no great friend of Lemke's [35] —also steadfastly defended the proposed transfer. His argument, weakened somewhat by his admitted lack of firsthand knowledge about the northern badlands, was to the point: the area was simply not up to national park standards. [36]

Ignoring this, Lemke argued that not only were North Dakotans in general opposed to FWS taking over the recreational demonstration area, but that local ranchers were more amenable to NPS control because of the large amount of land excluded from his park plan. "The part we are leaving out is the best grazing land," went one of Lemke's pitches to the committee. [37]

Lemke was in fact telling half-truths. First of all, he had exaggerated the preferences of a few civic leaders into a phantom state-wide consensus favoring NPS over FWS control. In reality, the Medora Chamber of Commerce had gone on record in favor of any plan that would maintain federal administration of the south part of the RDA because they felt that such would best benefit the local economy. The Chamber's president informed Lemke that

we have been warned that the present set-up [the RDA] is doomed to cancellation as it now stands and we do not want to see this come to pass, and are particularly desirous that some disposition be made of the area whereby it could and would be a source of entertainment and attraction to the public.

In view of these facts, we ask that you use your efforts to bring about a creation of the Roosevelt Monument, Roosevelt Park, or else concur in our belief that the Wild Life proposal is the only thing left to save the area.

So while the first choice of the civic leaders was NPS control, they were not at all opposed in principle to the idea of a Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge, as Lemke implied at the hearings. [38]

Second, his assertion about local rancher support was not quite accurate. The Medora Grazing Association, a small but influential group of ranchers in Billings County, wanted most of the south part of the RDA opened to grazing. In 1942 they sent a resolution to this effect to Secretary of the Interior Ickes, and re-affirmed it in letters to NPS in 1944 and to Lemke just before the park was authorized. They hoped that control of the RDA would be transferred to the Soil Conservation Service along with the authority to reserve a small portion for recreation, sell off other portions, and "allow the use of the rest by local resident users who have been using it" [39] — namely, themselves and other cattlemen who had been grazing stock semi-illegally within the RDA since the dismantlement of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Overall, then, local support for Lemke's first park proposal was strong, especially among civic organizations and chambers of commerce, but by no means unanimous. [40]

At the hearings the Fish and Wildlife Service offered to sanction limited grazing within the pending refuge. Still, Lemke could not agree with Director Gabrielson's claim that wildlife management was the highest and best use of the area. He tried to pin down Gabrielson on just how much fish and game already existed in the badlands:

LEMKE: So whatever wildlife refuge is going to be there you will have to create, that is, get in there and get it started, isn't that correct?

GABRIELSON: There is seed stock in there. We can build it up.

This tepid response spurred Lemke to the wild assertion that the badlands "never had any great wildlife population" and therefore should be made into a national park on the basis of its scenic value. [41]

In making this argument against a national wildlife refuge, Lemke unwittingly ruined his chances for obtaining full national park designation. Contending that the badlands lacked a variety of natural resources was precisely the wrong image to convey when he was seeking designation as a natural area. If, on the other hand, Lemke wanted to leave open the possibility of a historical area designation, to exclude the two sites in the badlands most directly connected with Roosevelt would also be a grave error. But this is exactly what his bill did, leaving out the Elkhorn and Maltese Cross Ranches because they were "quite a distance away from any of the scenic beauties." More importantly to Lemke, they were also in the Little Missouri River bottoms, thus part of the "best grazing land" he wanted to exclude to appease the ranchers. [42]

Lemke gambled by intentionally downplaying Roosevelt's association with the region, he hoped to enhance the chance for a national park designation by taking away from NPS the opportunity to suggest a national historical park classification. But in the hearings he had also seemed to de-emphasize the area's natural endowments in his careless exchange with Gabrielson. Lemke was left with nothing but scenic values to cite in support of his bill—enough to get the legislation through Congress, but not past President Truman, who pocket-vetoed it in August 1946. Three months later the Roosevelt Recreational Demonstration Area officially became the Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge. [43] Lemke's tactics had assured the failure of his own proposal.

The Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Compromise

Toward the end of the January 1946 hearings Lemke realized his mistake and at the last minute offered to make the bill more historically relevant by including the Elkhorn Ranch site and the Chateau de Mores in Medora, the home of the Marquis do Mores, an ill-starred financier and stockgrower who founded the town. [44] But it was too late for changes. So when the new Congress convened in January 1947, Lemke introduced House Resolution 731, a bill identical to the one Truman vetoed except that now the Elkhorn site was included from the start. [45]

Truman had refused to sign Lemke's first bill on the advice of not only the Service, but prominent conservationists ranging from Devereux Butcher, who relayed the National Parks Association's disapproval, to Horace Albright, who still saw the area as a national monument but not a national park. And in the last public comment on the bill, Oscar L. Chapman, the acting secretary of the interior, stated that the North Dakota badlands were best suited to a purpose of wildlife management. [46]

Lemke's chances of overcoming this formidable opposition were better than might be imagined, however. Now that he had established a favorable precedent within Congress, and had gotten some experience in dealing with NPS, he was much better able to exploit the ambiguity the agency had shown in its opinion of the area. Lemke took note of the several instances in which the Service had seemed to come out in favor of including the badlands in the System.

Without a doubt the confused front presented by the Service on this question was due partly to cases where an NPS official told a banquet of local citizens what they wanted to hear, and partly to genuine indecision over the quality of an area on the margin of national park worthiness as it was then understood. So it cannot have come as a total surprise when Drury, in response to the introduction of H. R. 731, reversed himself and called for a compromise in which a Theodore Roosevelt National Monument would be created. [47]

But the indefatigable Lemke held out for national park status, and when he secured House approval of H. R. 731 in early 1947, events appeared to be repeating themselves, for surely Truman would not have embarrassed Drury by approving an unchanged version of Lemke's second bill after the Service had gone to the considerable trouble of offering a compromise.

Faced with the same depressing scenario, in March the Park Service finally relented—partially. After clearing it with the Department of the Interior, Lemke was approached with a second offer: NPS would not oppose a Theodore Roosevelt National Historical or National Memorial Park. The idea of calling it a memorial park had been current since at least early 1945, but the origin of the title can be traced to the Roosevelt Memorial National Park Association of the 1920s. The rationale was that the Service would not have to begrudge another "inferior" national park, yet Lemke could have those two precious words in his title.

Most local residents had no objection, but "it was felt by some that since the word memorial would put [the new park] into a special class from other national parks it would serve to degrade it." Lemke, in accepting the title, declared, "I can see no great difference between the Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park," and thought the designation, far from degrading the new park, would put it "in a class by itself" with the name suggesting "something more, not less, than a national park in the ordinary usage." [48] He assured his supporters that the memorial designation would mean no difference in the park's development. [49] As it turned out, he was wrong on both counts.

All the parties involved were as satisfied as they would ever be (the Fish and Wildlife Service, perhaps realizing their jurisdiction in the badlands was tenuous, gave in as well) and H. R. 731 sailed through Congress to Truman's pen on April 25, 1947. One imagines that the signing was the occasion of much relief in the high echelons of the Service—relief tempered with resignation.

Yellowstone turned upside down

The National Park Service took over the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge on August 13, 1947, but the North Unit remained under FWS control. [50] Lemke had no intention of leaving it this way. Even before Truman signed the enabling act Lemke was telling people in Watford City that the North Unit would not be left behind. "May I suggest that you wait with this until we first get the Roosevelt Park established, then it would be easy to add the rest," he reassured one supporter, knowing full well that it would not be easy. The Service had told Lemke repeatedly that, as little as it wanted the South Unit, it wanted the North Unit even less. [51]

NPS's preferences did not unduly concern Lemke, so in 1948 he set about to finish the business he had begun by introducing legislation (H. R. 5587) to add most of the north part of the defunct RDA to the new national memorial park. A little later he proposed a second bill (H. R. 5816) to correct the enabling act's erroneous boundary description of the Elkhorn and to add to the South Unit the petrified forest formations northwest of the Little Missouri. H. R. 5816 also eliminated the provision in the enabling act requiring a statue of Roosevelt to be erected in Medora, with the funds saved going toward a park museum. [52]

At the House hearings on his North Unit bill Lemke presented a parade of local advocates, mostly civic leaders from the Watford City area. Some urged the committee to include the North Unit because of its beautiful scenery (one man called it "an inverted Yellowstone Park"); others, recalling the recreational demonstration area, told of the community pride created by the presence of a park; still others thought the North Unit addition would be a perfect tourist complement to the new Garrison Dam. [53]

But the civic leaders thought their most compelling argument was the land's lack of immediate economic utility: it wasn't good for anything else, so why not make it a national park? "The proposed park site is of rough terrain," declared one witness, "and of little practical use to mankind. . ." Another supporter called the land in the North Unit just about worthless. Lemke himself characterized the proposed addition as "lands with no commercial value." Although some local ranching interests opposed the addition precisely because it would put more land toward "non-productive purposes," [54] the weight of sentiment in Watford City was on the side of Lemke. [55]

This was exactly what the committee wanted to hear, of course. The stockmen had already done their work, winnowing down the earliest park proposals and the RDA to the baddest of the badlands. But just to make sure of their support, Lemke included a perpetual easement in his North Unit bill, forever reserving to local ranchers the right to drive stock through the park to railheads by using the Little Missouri River corridor. [56]

No doubt thoroughly sick of the matter, Undersecretary Chapman nevertheless voiced the Department of the Interior's opposition to the bill in a letter to the Senate. Two of his arguments had validity: it would indeed be hard to administer the North Unit from Medora, and the new area "would contribute no basic historical values" not already existing in the South Unit, at least in terms of commemorating Roosevelt, who was known to have been in the North Unit area only once in his life. A third, that the proposed addition would add "little to the natural values" of the park, was just plain wrong and reflected a lack of familiarity with the subtleties of the badlands landscape, not to mention its ecology. [57]

Lemke realized that the fate of the North Unit depended on how well he could counter Chapman's arguments. He could not refute the point about administrative difficulties, but in letters to supporters he outlined a strategy that he knew would appeal to the narrow conception of national parks held by most of his fellow congressmen. "I am going to introduce another bill [H. R. 5587], but we will have to support that bill with evidence, first that the people of North Dakota and Montana want it. Second, that its scenic beauty is equal to the south area. Also, that Theodore Roosevelt visited it several times from his ranch, and that it is connected with Theodore Roosevelt personally. I presume he hunted there." He wrote Russell Reid of the State Historical Society of North Dakota asking for a letter of support for the record. "Point out the scenic value as well as the historical value of [the North Unit], and that it is just as scenic as the Yellowstone Park only in a different way," he suggested, adding "I also need some good pictures showing the scenery of the area included in my bill." [58] Even in the 1940s, scenic value was still thought one of the most crucial of all national park criteria.

All this notwithstanding, the Department's opposition to the addition was pretty much a formality, with the House hearings having the air of a foregone conclusion about them. The Fish and Wildlife Service had not done much to consolidate its foothold in the badlands, and, after all, NPS had run the proposed park addition as an RDA for so long that despite all the official disavowals it seemed to the local people that the North Unit was a real part of the National Park System.

With the exception of Lemke every official involved was probably weary of the whole thing and wanted it over with. The House Committee on Public Lands, finding that "the so-called badlands of North Dakota have a distinct recreational, scenic, and historical value different from that to be found in any other national park" reported H. R. 5587 and H. R. 5816 favorably. [59] Both quickly passed Congress and were signed into law within days of each other in June 1948. The unique and troublesome geographic make-up of the park had been set.

Lemke's role in the creation of the park

Why William Lemke should have devoted five years and more, late in a long political career, to a cause he had never before espoused and to the memory of a man whom he did not personally admire, is a question that may never yield to a wholly satisfying answer. In all his voluminous correspondence on the creation of the national memorial park he gives few hints at the reasons behind his diligence. His biographer, Edward C. Blackorby, is undoubtedly correct in stating that Lemke hoped to salvage his waning political reputation by orchestrating the park through Congress, [60] but this conclusion doesn't lead to a real understanding of what drove him to work so hard to achieve success in this instance.

It would almost be too obvious to point to a mercenary ideology behind his efforts. Time and time again he wrote of the financial benefits which would accrue to North Dakota if the park were established, of the "millions" of dollars a national park would bring. [61] His view of the park cannot have been too dissimilar to that of the Greater North Dakota Association, confident as it was that "the entire state and eventually the nation will appreciate this great play-ground, which will give North Dakota a real touring objective." [62]

Lemke certainly had no inkling of the philosophical underpinnings of the national parks. Even after all his dealings with NPS he never mastered the agency's terminology, variously referring to his project as a "National Park," "National Monument," "Memorial Park," and even as a "Great Plains State Park." [63]

This is more than a case where a person's ideas outstrip his ability to express them. Lemke seemed to have no ideals at all for his proposed park, no way to fit it into the National Park System, until he latched onto Conrad Wirth's suggestion that a park in the badlands might be made representative of the natural and human history of all the Great Plains states. Thereafter Lemke referred to this as if it were part of a plan he had had for the park all along. [64] More damning was the fact that Lemke had little idea of what Roosevelt accomplished in the badlands and cared even less for its accurate commemoration. For example, the legal description of the Elkhorn Ranch site was given incorrectly in the park's enabling act of April 25, 1947. Lemke knew of this likelihood beforehand (he had been given three conflicting descriptions), but, as he peevishly wrote to a constituent, "I haven't time to wait and find out just where this ranch was located," and insisted upon including the dubious description in H. R. 731 "as it is." It was all right with him if NPS wanted to bother with properly locating the site after the park had been secured. [65] He did not seem to think it worth his while to actually visit the ranch site, even though the passage of H. R. 731 was contingent upon its inclusion.

Similarly, Lemke was perfectly willing to have the language of his legislation manipulated—and in some cases, dictated—by local interests if he thought it would make passage easier. A perfect example was his handling of H. R. 5816, the bill to correct the Elkhorn description and add the petrified forest to the South Unit. This bill appeared innocuous enough, but it ran into vehement opposition from the Medora Grazing Association. Despite its impressive name, the Medora Grazing Association was actually just a small cadre of well-organized ranchers who had taken advantage of the relaxation of grazing restrictions during World War II to run cattle in the south part of the Roosevelt RDA—a privilege they soon came to consider their right. [66] They objected to provisions in H. R. 5816 which changed the boundary of the newly-created national memorial park to include part of the Government Creek drainage just north of the South Unit. [67] Ignoring protestations from many sources characterizing the Grazing Association as a tiny faction who cared for nothing except themselves, Lemke chose expediency and caved in to their demands (it must be noted that NPS also acquiesced without much contest). [68] Although he got the petrified wood formations included in the final version of H. R. 5816, Lemke also inserted into his bill the boundary changes the Grazing Association wanted, almost to the letter. [69] He allowed a small group of ranchers to literally write part of the boundary of the park as it exists today.

William Lemke was a consummate politician, not a conservationist. Everything he did during the struggle to get the park established proves it. Yet why he should have chosen a project so unlike any of the others he had undertaken, and why he was so suffused with a fervor to see its accomplishment, remains a mystery. Perhaps the solution awaits another biographical study of this enigmatic man who was in many ways not only a representative of his state in Congress, but representative of the singular, and sometimes troubled, character of North Dakota. [70]

Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park was dedicated on June 4, 1949. A crowd estimated at as many as 40,000 (cars were parked for three miles on either side of U. S. Route 10) gathered in the natural amphitheater between Peck Hill and Painted Canyon, east of Medora. They ate and chatted. They saw an elaborate pageant of patriotic and historical vignettes. They listened to the usual oration, and heard Director Drury, in a complete about-face, say "the Congress established this area because of the striking form and color of the Badlands scene, the interesting geological story that helps to explain how these forms came to be, and the unusual fauna and flora." Not one word about the human history of an area that he, two years earlier, had suggested calling a national historical park. [71]

Everyone enjoyed the day. By all accounts, it was the biggest social event that part of the country had seen for fifty years.

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Last Updated: 15-Jan-2004