The Cradle of Conservation

Envisioning a new type of conservation in North Dakota’s broken badlands

The four-letter word that in some circles is dreaded and some celebrated — bust — is flicking from the tongues of residents in western North Dakota. Due to low demand and falling oil prices, the Bakken oil boom is continuing — new wells are drilled, homes continue to be built, and semis still rumble along the highway — but the incredible growth that was documented as recent as 2014 seems stagnant. Hotel weekly rates have fallen, stop-sign intersections in Dickinson no longer take minutes to get through, and machinery that a year ago was in use now sits still in fields. In some ways it feels like North Dakota is taking a breath, reassessing, and wondering if the bust is really here for good.

Photo of Well Pads Along Little Missouri RiverPhoto by NPCA Photos Well pads along the Little Missouri River, with the Elkhorn Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the background.

I spend summers in North Dakota, my home state, writing, diving into the rugged badlands, and trying to make sense of the nearly decade-long frenzy that is the Bakken oil boom. I’m a proponent of a post-carbon economy, and spend my time scratching words on the page, trying to express my love for the smell of silver sage, the National Grasslands, and the cappuccino-colored Little Missouri River. For the past few years I’ve tried to articulate a new type of conservation — one that feels invigorating, isn’t fear-driven, and is for something rather than against something.

In August 2015 I traveled to the Cradle of Conservation, Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch. A type of graveyard monument, the only remnant of Roosevelt’s ranch is the stone foundation, this spot in the North Dakota badlands is where Roosevelt fled when his wife and mother died on the same day — it’s a place that reawakened Roosevelt, toughened him up, and — in his own words — shaped his future drive for the presidency.

The Little Missouri riverbed near the Elkhorn Ranch is carpeted in sage and waxy cottonwood trees, an oasis of green, in a sea of brown buttes and bluffs. I felt anxious at the Elkhorn Ranch. In childhood, I learned about Theodore Roosevelt, came to revere him as the most well-read president, relished his reverence for the “Strenuous Life,” and boasted that North Dakota — my North Dakota — drove him to run for president. I later learned, too, that Roosevelt was a type of imperialist, a believer in Manifest Destiny, and relished war. My hero became very human and very complicated. 

But that’s not what made me anxious. As I walked past stiff stalks of blue gramma, I heard the sound of slow moving water, the willowy Little Missouri running in the distance. I jumped down the riverbank, sprinted across sandstone, and stopped just short of the water. On the ridge a pumpjack bobbed like a donkey, pulling and sucking black oil nearly two miles under where I stood. I thought of the saltwater spills that empty into this waterway, a side effect of the Bakken oil boom. I trampled into the shallow water, ate lunch in the stream, and soaked in the sound of thrashers and grosbeaks, listened to the thrum of black flies and grasshoppers in the distance, wondering if more than just water was running over my legs and more than just air was filling my lungs.

Though the oil boom still plods along, North Dakota is now faced with new questions and new tasks. In a landscape that doesn’t heal, that still contains wagon wheel tracks from when Custer traveled to the Battle of the Little Bighorn, how do we lament the loss of beauty in this broken landscape? Now, when viewed from Google maps, a new host of strawberry-colored roadways wind through the badlands, leading to dead ends where pumpjacks bob. What will happen as oil wells run dry, pumpjacks rusting atop buttes?

Perhaps now is the time for us to listen deeply to Roosevelt: “It is also vandalism wantonly to destroy or to permit the destruction of what is beautiful in nature, whether it be a cliff, a forest, or a species of mammal or bird. Here in the United States we turn our rivers and streams into sewers and dumping-grounds, we pollute the air, we destroy forests, and exterminate fishes, birds and mammals — not to speak of vulgarizing charming landscapes with hideous advertisements. But at last it looks as if our people were awakening.”            

So what does it mean when we want to conserve a portion of the prairie, protect federal and public lands, or ensure waterways are cool and clean? It might mean that we look towards history, remembering that the Bakken oil boom is part of the long history of the American West, a history fraught with conquest and domination. It might mean that we create systems to sustain us — such as transportation systems that do not compromise air quality and energy systems that do not promote ruining landscapes — that make it easier to be good.

It might mean, too, that we learn a bit from Roosevelt and his speech at the Grand Canyon: “Leave it as it is,” he said. “You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American if he can travel at all should see.”

Yes, the badlands of North Dakota are compromised. But our efforts to conserve it shouldn’t be born of fear. It should be an effort of love, and of celebration of these beautiful, quiet and complicated landscapes.  

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