LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Crenelated Landscape

Crenelated landscape. That’s where we’re home from. The Bad Lands of North Dakota, where we gathered for one of Badlands Conservation Alliance‘s summer outings.

Driving there, we listened to the excellent radio segment “Natural North Dakota.” We’re members of Prairie Public Radio and partial to the vast majority of their programming, mostly listening in the car. Jim drove while I also caught up on the Washington Post and Twitter.

West of Dickinson, the grain is already ripening and pastures look bleak.

Our first glimpse of the Bad Lands was at Painted Canyon on the western side of the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It is a tawny landscape, and I spotted a raven on a park boundary fencepost. A golden eagle soared over the Medora exit, and the resident turkey vultures circled the town.

The group gathered at Chimney Park on the western edge of Medora and headed to Camel Hump Dam, where we picked up a couple more folks. The water level in the dam is shrinking. Along the Maah Daah Hey trail, folks are participating in a MDH 50 Race. Better them than us, Jim and I agreed. We caravaned on very dusty roads to our destination.


The goldenrod on the roadsides signal that late summer is here as do the scoria lilies on the rocky outcroppings.

Here and there, the dust is in drifts on the road. We passed Twin Buttes and continued on the Westerheim Road, skirting the most rugged of the Bad Lands.  There is a haze of dust on the horizon along with smoke from the big Montana fires. The roads we traveled are gravel, not as much scoria as in other areas, and the area is spider-webbed with oil pads and such. We met a semi hauling water, and the dust the rig created dwarfed our vehicle dust.  ow and then, I spotted a buteo perched in the green ash trees. Near Wannagan campground, we noted a support pop-up site for the MDH 50 Race.

We entered the Bell Lake area, and the road is more near to the Little Missouri River canyon. It is very easy for the uninitiated to take a wrong turn in this area, so, as I’ve written before, do get a U.S. Forest Service grasslands map before you travel here. The temperature has already climbed to 86 degrees.

We pulled over for our conversation with Jeb Williams. Jeb belongs to the Short family and from where stood, we looked down from this vista point into the historic Short Ranch. Our topic was our mutual concern regarding the proposed bridge in this area. Jeb shared his childhood memory of driving on a twisty road no longer in use to come to visit his grandparents.

We’re all very worried that the preferred alternative would, while no longer traversing near to the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of TRNP, shoot straight through this ranch, through what Jeb describes as “one of the best bottoms along the Little Missouri River,” splitting the ranch with the potential for 1,000 trucks a day during fracking activities.

Someone remembers that at a public meeting held in Medora some years ago, regarding the proposed bridge in this vicinity, now deceased Con Short said, “Hell, no.” Jeb points out that “from a true transportation sense, this preferred alternative does not accomplish transportation efficiencies.” When asked, it is pointed out to us that 95 percent of the time the local people “already” can get across the river without a bridge, and the counties are already adapted to dealing with emergency situations. Another very interesting point is that the Sanford helicopter is already available to the two counties (Billings and McKenzie) for FREE!

There was general agreement that the $15 million cost that has been quoted is likely much too low. “We just don’t need one” should be the preferred alternative. There is also great concern that eminent domain might be used. A bridge makes no sense and is not needed was the consensus.

After a lengthy discussion of the issues, it was agreed to keep talking to each other as this unfolds. The members of BCA were extremely appreciative that Jeb and Jay took the time to meet with us in that spot where it was all too clear that we need to be engaged in this issue.

The group moved to the shade of ash trees in the bottom for a picnic.

It was 93 degrees, but this front dropped the temperature to 82 degrees, for a brief time.
It was 93 degrees, but this front dropped the temperature to 82 degrees, for a brief time.

At this point, we parted from the group, taking with us our friends Tracy and Laura, and headed to the Elkhorn Ranch. A congregation of nine magpies flew languidly across the road near the Roosevelt Creek drainage, and a thunderstorm was gathering on the western horizon. Sadly, I don’t think it left much rain in its wake.

Our friends had not been to the Elkhorn, and we were eager to show more of the area to them. But first, we checked out the nearby river crossings as our final destination was back on the east side of the Little Missouri.

Near the river, we spotted a bald eagle.

It is time to get serious about getting to our campsite for the night, so we cross the river, a thrill for Tracy and Laura. An immature bald eagle flew down the river.

But first, we needed one more stop to show them the Elkhorn Ranchlands, a USFS parcel east of the Elkhorn Ranch. This was once the Connell — later Eberts —ranch, and a beautiful place it is, with a sweeping view of Theodore Roosevelt’s ranch site.

Because of the rugged Whitetail Creek drainage to our north, we followed a rather circuitous route the 30 miles to Magpie Campground (USFS), which has just reopened today, post-prairie fire. Again, if you go, do buy a Dakota Prairie Grasslands map. Word to the wise: for some reason, at this time there is no water at the Magpie campground.

The campground was perfectly silent (there is only one other party here), and a lovely half moon rises, signaling to these weary travelers it was time to get some sleep. The only sound now was the crickets’ nighttime chirping.

After a starry night, Sunday dawned in a rather startling way, with a helicopter flyover, a crew surveying the fire.

We’re excited this morning because we are taking our friends to yet another new place for them, this time a hike to nearby Goat Pass, also known as Devil’s Pass, on the Maah Daah Hey trail. If you go to this area, do consider consulting a trail guide in addition to the grasslands map.

We return to the Magpie campground to relax while we wait for the agreed upon time for reconnecting with our BCA pals for the day’s program. This Spotted Towhee amused me.  It was scavenging around my lawn chair. Jim caught a nap.

At the Magpie MDH trailhead, we met Oscar Knudtson and Treva Slaughter of the USFS staff. They are here to tell us about the recent Magpie Fire.

Oscar explained that the fire started next to the road just behind him, and the cause, while still under investigation, is likely human in source. He recounted all the details of this fire and told us that the fight was a real community effort in cooperation with federal agencies.

“Hat’s off to the locals.”

It burned a little less than 5,000 acres and ignited about 24 coal seams. The hand crews have dug these up and extinguished these in order to avoid future fires. Oscar told us that prairie fires knock back the junipers and sagebrush and rejuvenate the grasses in short order. A recent rain of more than an inch brought out the new green grasses in just days, and the grazing will benefit from this.  What is called the “fire mosaic” is evident and “this land is adapted to fire.” A future concern will be weeds and some areas will be reseeded in the coming autumn.

If interested in more information about this particular fire, the Dakota Prairie Grasslands Facebook page will have photos, including aerial photos taken by the aforementioned helicopter, as well as maps.

The day ended with everyone going their separate ways. We enjoyed hearty food at the Killdeer Buckskin Bar before our drive to Bismarck. I recommend it.

Time to get home to get cracking on our tomato harvest.

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