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National park 'shrinking' as oil wells ring scenic vistas

Medora, N.D. Wade Schafer has long prized the views surrounding the sculpted sandstone bluff of Wind Canyon along the scenic loop drive in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. But when he visited the treasured spot in the park's south unit a year ag...

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Medora, N.D.

Wade Schafer has long prized the views surrounding the sculpted sandstone bluff of Wind Canyon along the scenic loop drive in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

But when he visited the treasured spot in the park's south unit a year ago, he saw the view to the east was marred by a new oil well outside the park.

"This is one of my favorite spots," laments Schafer, an environmental advocate for the Sierra Club in Bismarck. The park is North Dakota's top tourist destination, with half a million visitors a year.

Jan Swenson, who has been visiting the park for five decades, says the oil wells are becoming more and more prevalent all around the park's south unit, especially from high ground.

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"It's becoming more pronounced on a monthly basis," says Swenson, executive director of the Badlands Conservation Alliance. The effect, the Bismarck woman adds, gives visitors a keener sense of the park's boundaries.

"We're recognizing how small these islands are," she says of the park's two main units, as well as the Elkhorn Ranch site, where Theodore Roosevelt ranched during the 1880s. "The park is shrinking."

In fact, the Elkhorn Ranch site itself is threatened, in the view of historic preservation and conservation advocates.

A bridge or crossing is proposed at several sites, all within 2 to 2½ miles of the Elkhorn Ranch, a 218-acre parcel located on the Little Missouri River.

Valerie Naylor, superintendent of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, has asked federal highway officials to consider crossing locations farther from the historic ranch.

"I do hope they will back up a step and look at other options that are farther from the Elkhorn Ranch unit, which is the most historically significant part of the park," she says.

If built, the resulting traffic, from oil and gas crews among others, would raise dust and detract from public viewing of what some have called the "cradle of conservation," the place credited with molding Roosevelt into a fervent conservationist as president.

Oil and gas activity on the U.S. Forest Service's Little Missouri Grasslands, which abut most of the park's perimeters, has risen sharply in recent years.

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Now between 600 and 630 oil and gas wells are in production in the grassland districts that are near the two main park units, an increase of about 125 wells from 2001, says Larry Melvin, who oversees mineral leasing on the Dakota Prairie Grasslands.

Also, oil and gas exploration permits have risen five-fold over the period, another indicator of increased activity, and a likely harbinger of more wells to come. Yet development has been slower than allowed under the grasslands' management plan.

The Forest Service tries to mitigate the effects of oil and gas on the park, Melvin says. A buffer strip around the park means wells must be at least a quarter or half mile from the park boundary, in an effort to protect the "scenic integrity" of the park from oil and gas development, he says.

Also, exploration permits often carry stipulations imposing restrictions, such as the height of a pump or well, or requiring a muffler on a pump motor, to make them less conspicuous.

Still, the incursions near the park, which is off-limits to industrial development, stand out, Naylor says.

"It's especially visible at night because we see more lights and flaring," she says. "It's certainly an issue for our 'view shed,' and has been since the 1970s."

The increased oil and gas development outside the park's perimeter is just one of the challenges confronting North Dakota's lone national park.

Rangers are working on a plan to address the overpopulated elk herd, estimated at 900, or more than double the population of 360 to 400 park biologists consider optimal.

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The park continues work on a plan to reduce the elk population, and will release the environmental impact statement for public comment in November or December, Naylor says.

Using sharpshooters, including volunteers, is one possible alternative among a host of options, she says. Beyond that, she wouldn't comment on particulars. "It's a complex document and it explains all the alternatives, including those considered and rejected."

Prairie dog towns in the south unit also have expanded in recent years, now encompassing 1,743 acres, up from 1,550 acres last year.

The park is working on a management plan for the prairie dogs, many of which are located near the Peaceful Valley Ranch. The rodents flourish in dry years, so the drought has given them a boost.

Prairie dogs are considered a keystone species, providing food and habitat for a host of other species, and a natural part of the prairie ecosystem, Naylor says. Their habit accounts for just 3 percent of the park, she adds.

Prairie dogs are just one of the grazing species that must be managed on the grassland to protect vegetation in the park, along with buffalo, elk, deer and feral horses. Rangers periodically round up bison and horses to thin the herds to avoid overgrazing.

In the south unit, where buffalo were reintroduced 52 years ago, the herd is estimated at 375. The park plans a bison roundup in November, to cull the herd and remove 150 buffalo. Surplus buffalo often go to the InterTribal Bison Cooperative.

About 130 horses roam the park, well beyond the 50- to 90-head target range established to prevent overgrazing. Rangers expect a horse roundup will be required next year.

In the north unit, where 200 buffalo roam, the park keeps a small herd of seven longhorn cattle to commemorate the historic Long X Ranch herd.

"It's kind of a juggling act," Bill Whitworth, the park's chief of resources, says of the balances required to manage wildlife populations to prevent overgrazing. "We don't want it to look like a pasture. We want that diversity of plants."

To prevent damage to vegetation, especially during stressful times of drought, the park maintains numbers well below levels that could cause problems, Naylor says.

"We've always been conservative in how we manage our wildlife," she says. "Because of that, our grasslands are in good condition, even after a long drought."

Another possible park threat from outside its boundaries is a proposed coal gasification plant near South Heart, which would be located 15 to 18 miles from the park.

So far, the plant's backers haven't filed permit applications disclosing proposed emissions or the height of the stack, both of which are of concern to the park, Naylor says.

"The park isn't just a tourist destination during the summer," Naylor says. "There are a lot issues we must deal with year round."

Theodore Roosevelt National Park at a glance

The park, located in North Dakota's Little Missouri River Badlands, is composed of three units:

- South Unit, near Medora: 46,158 acres

- North Unit, near Watford City: 24,070 acres

- Elkhorn Ranch, between two main units: 218 acres

- Total wilderness acreage: 29,920 acres

Seminar to discuss Roosevelt's legacy

Historians and conservationists will gather next month at Dickinson State University to discuss Theodore Roosevelt's conservation legacy.

The symposium, the third annual at DSU, will discuss Roosevelt's life and work in the American West, including his time ranching and hunting in the North Dakota badlands.

The conference begins Oct. 9 and concludes Oct. 11, with events on the DSU campus and Medora, as well as guided hikes in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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