The Elkhorn Ranch: If Not a National Monument, What?

Clay Jenkinson

Humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson.

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by Clay Jenkinson

Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch is back in the news. A coalition of conservation groups and dedicated individuals have been pressing the Obama administration to designate the Elkhorn Ranch as a National Monument. Under the provisions of the Antiquities Act, passed by Congress in 1906, the President of the United States has the authority to designate National Monuments by presidential proclamation alone. No further congressional approval is necessary.

Since 1906, 142 National Monuments have been proclaimed by presidents of both parties, including, most recently, George W. Bush (six) and Barack Obama (sixteen). All eleven western states have National Monuments—in profusion. Minnesota and South Dakota each have one. North Dakota: none.

The history of the National Monuments system, beginning with President Roosevelt’s designation of Devils Tower National Monument (September 24, 1906), tends to go something like this. Ardent local or national conservationists convince the president to make the designation, often over the strong, sometimes fierce, protests of local development interests. In the ensuing decades, most of the opposition subsides, except for a little residual grumbling in some quarters, and the localities come to realize that National Monument designation does wonders for tourism, which proves to be a sustainable and lucrative economic engine for the region in question. At some point, like Devils Tower (WY), Jewel Cave (SD), Death Valley (CA), and Scotts Bluff (NB), National Monuments become beloved local and national treasures, and sources of great pride in the very regions where they were at first opposed.

Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch headquarters is currently one of the three units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Consisting of a mere 218 acres, it has been called the crown jewel of the National Park. It is remote, pristine, serene, and not effortlessly accessible. As you approach the site, on a hike of about 1/3 of a mile, you realize with great joy that it is little changed since TR last departed.

Maybe indeed Roosevelt just departed—and will return with stories of fabulous adventures, covered with dirt, blood, and grit, “all teeth and eyes,” as Victor Hugo Stickney described him in 1884. The Elkhorn Ranch deserves to be cherished as a national shrine to TR, who “became” the larger-than-life Theodore Roosevelt of American memory during his sojourn in North Dakota’s badlands, and who turned out to be the greatest conservationist in presidential history thanks to the dynamic interplay of wildlife, habitat, hunting, grazing, resource exploitation he observed along the banks of the Little Missouri River.

Roosevelt chose the Elkhorn site in 1884 for its beauty and remoteness, made it his Dakota Territory headquarters and retreat center, and returned to it again and again, even after he left North Dakota, as a place where he could hunt, read, write, and restore his great spirit in times of perplexity and sorrow. He grieved for his first wife Alice there. He wrote parts of at least two of his books there. He seems to have formulated some of his revolutionary conservation principles there.

The Elkhorn Ranch was much larger than 218 acres, of course. According to the informal custom of the badlands at the time, TR was entitled to “claim” a ranch that extended four miles upriver and four miles downriver from his headquarters, and all the way out to the end of the Little Missouri drainage system. That means he had an effective ranch claim of 20-30,000 acres. When Theodore Roosevelt National Park was created by Congress in 1947, only the ranch headquarters was set aside to protect and commemorate TR’s Elkhorn experiences. Back then the size of the NPS site was not particularly important, because it was so remote and inaccessible, and it was surrounded solely by the kind of family ranches that Roosevelt prized.

The Elkhorn National Monument would probably include the 218-acre ranch site, the 5,200-acre former Eberts Ranch, purchased by the U.S. National Forest System in 2006, and perhaps some modest parcels of adjacent North Dakota state lands and private property. The National Monument would attempt to knit these parcels together to conserve forever Roosevelt’s “greater Elkhorn Ranch,” ensure that the viewshed from the ranch headquarters will never be ruined or compromised by industrial or commercial activity, and provide a critical buffer around the ranch headquarters to protect it from the noise, dust, and visual scarring of oil development. Oil extraction in the vicinity has already begun to diminish the quality of experience that Roosevelt sought at the Elkhorn (silence, serenity, the sense of inhabiting a landscape barely touched by human enterprise). As the oil boom continues, pressures on the Elkhorn will grow in intensity.

To understand what is at stake, we need to remember how small the current Elkhorn site is. 218 acres is about a third of a section of land. Imagine what it would be like if Old Faithful were merely a quarter mile from an interstate highway, an array of oil storage tanks, or a gold or copper mine. If we could ensure that the 218-acre Elkhorn headquarters would always be surrounded by traditional cattle ranching, there would be no threat to the sanctitude of the shrine. But the U.S. Forest Service’s National Grasslands have a multiple use mandate—mining, oil development, gravel extraction, grazing, recreation, etc.

The Forest Service is decidedly lukewarm about the idea of an Elkhorn National Monument, for at least three reasons. First, when the Eberts ranch was sold to the U.S. Forest Service ten years ago, there was an “understanding” that the land would continue to be available for a range of non-commemorative uses. Second, a re-designation of the land would create a turf between federal agencies. Third, most of the Little Missouri River ranch community is hostile to the idea of the National Monument, in part because they don’t want any further acreage “locked up” by the federal government. Since the Forest Service has to work continuously with badlands ranchers to regulate their use of federal grazing lands, it is not eager to damage what is already an often-contentious relationship.

Last week the Billings County Commission rejected the idea emphatically, arguing that commodity production is the heart of the economy of Billings County. Presidents can proclaim National Monuments over the objection of local and state entities, but they are generally reluctant to do so unless they are able to secure at least the grudging support of a state’s congressional delegation, the governor, and local communities. It seems unlikely that President Obama will declare the Elkhorn a National Monument. The president does not seem to have much passion for conservation measures of this sort, and Roosevelt does not appear to be one of his heroes.

But if nothing is done, the Elkhorn Ranch will be seriously degraded in the years and decades ahead.

If we care about Theodore Roosevelt as a man we helped shape for national and international greatness, North Dakota’s “honorary president,” certainly one of the greatest individuals who ever lived among us, if we cherish Theodore Roosevelt National Park as one of the finest things in North Dakota, if we believe that anything, (something!) is too sacred to sacrifice on the altar of carbon extraction, we must together find a way to protect and conserve the Elkhorn Ranch.

To do nothing because there is no easy thing to do is a formula for the permanent degradation of one of the most important places in America. To do nothing is the very antithesis of what Theodore Roosevelt represents in American life.

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