This is the rugged country where a young Theodore Roosevelt, fed up for a time with politics, tried his hand as a rancher and wound up falling in love with the wildlife struggling to survive amidst what was then a rapidly developing frontier.
“We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune,” the future U.S. president told a Fourth of July gathering in nearby Dickenson, N.D., in 1886.
After becoming president in 1901, Roosevelt founded the U.S. Forest Service and wound up protecting approximately 230 million acres of land. He later said he would never have embraced environmentalism if not for his time in western North Dakota.
The legacy of the “conservationist president” is commemorated by Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which protects three parcels of badlands to the west of U.S. 85.
As recently as five years ago, this highway and this region were among the loneliest in the continental U.S. But the Bakken oil boom has brought a development boom back to the Little Missouri country.
Heavy truck traffic now flows 24 hours a day along U.S. 85 between the Bakken boom town of Watford City and U.S. Interstate 94. Natural gas flares, drill rigs, pumpjacks and temporary housing camps can now be glimpsed on almost every vista.
A herd of bighorn sheep reintroduced to public land suffered such high mortality from highway crossings, it had to be rounded up and moved into the park. Prairie-dog towns on public land are getting shot up by rednecks for the first time in decades.
Some people living along this highway — who chose to remain in this region because of its natural beauty and solitude — are beyond heartbroken.
“I call it the curse of the Bakken,” seethed John Heiser, who raises cattle on a fourth-generation ranch near Grassy Butte and works as a backcountry ranger in Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s north unit.
The 62-year-old rancher-ranger is a rare outspoken opponent of the oil boom that has fattened up the State of North Dakota’s bottom line. Fed up with the traffic, road construction and influx of what he describes as rednecks, he’s now trying to delay any further fracking in the region, especially as oil companies begin to exhaust private holdings and eye up 1.1 million acres of public land.
“None of us would oppose some oil development. None of us would oppose 50 rigs on the land,” he said. But there are more than 200 rigs drilling horizontal wells into North Dakota’s Bakken shale right now — and each one must be served by dozens of trips by trucks delivering water and sand for hydraulic fracturing and hauling away saltwater to disposal sites.
That traffic and road construction can make the 22-kilometre commute from Heiser’s ranch to his job at the park take as long as 90 minutes this summer. He now tries to minimize any driving and refuses to visit any nearby oil boom town, including Kildeer, where he went to school.
Some of his friends and neighbours have given up and moved away. Heiser figures their absence will compound an inevitable oil bust.
“You think the oil guys are going to learn how to sow seed or rope cattle? They’re just going to leave,” he said. “Whether it takes 10 years, 20 or 30, this infrastructure is going to be useless.”
Outside the region, the exploitation of the Bakken shale can be seen as a necessary evil — a scarring of the landscape rendered tolerable by the U.S. need for self-sufficiency in oil production.
Heiser rejects this argument, noting the U.S. already consumes more than a fifth of the world’s oil and has made no real effort to use less of it. He said North Dakotans are losing their reputation for being sensible and prudent. How else, he asks, can anyone justify flaring off a third of the Bakken’s natural gas, all in a rush to get at the oil below?
“That ought to be a bottleneck right there,” he said. “It’s just an absolute disaster.”
Heiser maintains the primary motivation beyond the Bakken oil boom is greed, not national security. Theodore Roosevelt, who railed against another boom in the region 130 years ago, would not have approved, he said.
“He’d have led a charge up the God-damned buttes years ago.”
Updated on Wednesday, August 21, 2013 at 6:45 AM CDT:
Updated on Wednesday, August 21, 2013 at 8:58 AM CDT:
Updated on Wednesday, August 21, 2013 at 9:54 AM CDT:
Roosevelt became president following the assassination of William McKinley.