(This article first appeared in the February-March issue of Dakota Country magazine, which should be on the newstands now.)
I’d like you to take five minutes to read about two nonprofit organizations that are doing important work for the North Dakota Bad Lands. Hey, it’s February. It’s cold outside. Get a cup of coffee and sit down.
The two organizations are the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation and the Badlands Conservation Alliance. Both names are a mouthful, so from here on in its TRPLF and BCA.
First, BCA (because it’s been around longer). BCA is a feisty little bunch that punches above its weight and bills itself as “A Voice For Wild North Dakota Places.” Its website says, “Badlands Conservation Alliance is dedicated to the restoration and preservation of the badlands and rolling prairie ecosystem comprising western North Dakota’s public lands, both state and federal.”
It’s been around since 1999. It has about 300 members, mostly North Dakotans, who pay annual dues ranging from $25 to $1,000, depending on their means, supporting a single-person staff and a volunteer board of directors. Most recently, it’s been involved in two issues I’ve written about on this site, the threats posed by an oil refinery near Theodore Roosevelt National Park and a bridge across the Little Missouri River to accommodate oil trucks. More about them in a minute.
TRPLF is a more recent phenomenon. Founded in 2014, it doesn’t really have a lot of members that I know of. What it has is a bunch of supporters who have done something truly incredible: They have put $150 million in a bank account to build a real Presidential Library in the Bad Lands of North Dakota. Not New York, California, Virginia, Pennsylvania or Massachusetts — right here in North Dakota.
Their website says:
“The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library will honor the life, legacy, and enduring relevance of our 26th president. We hope every visit will inspire bold action and fearless participation In the Arena—and challenge all of us to dare greatly, think boldly, live passionately, and care deeply. Just like T.R. Through the principles of Conservation, Leadership, and Citizenship, we will build an architecturally significant destination at the fulcrum of T.R.’s heroic journey, the Badlands of North Dakota. This is the cradle of conservation, and where he proved he could embody the strenuous life.”
I don’t doubt them for a minute. The final design for the project is being completed right now. Construction could start within a year. The money is in the bank to build it, although new donors are being attracted to it all the time, and it’s just going to get bigger and better as time goes on.
Led by an amazing gift of $50 million by heirs of Sam Walton of Wal-Mart fame (one of them married a Badlands girl whose passion for her home state drove the foundation into existence), library supporters raised another $50 million in gifts large and small, and the North Dakota Legislature, spurred on by Gov. Doug Burgum, added a like amount for operating funds once the building is done and opened to the public, just a couple of years from now.
I encourage you, when you’re done reading this article, to go look at the TRPLF website. You’ll find things like this:
- “There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, it’s melancholy, and its charm.”— Theodore Roosevelt
“The hidden spirit of the wilderness.” What a fine phrase. Theodore Roosevelt loved wilderness, and everyone agrees that he was our greatest Conservation President. And most agree that it was the time he spent living and ranching in the Dakota Territory Bad Lands, in what is now Billings County, North Dakota, that helped form the conservation ethic that guided his presidency.
The Library Foundation folks are big champions of TR’s conservation legacy, with quotes like these on their website:
- “Theodore Roosevelt is often considered the ‘conservationist president.’ In the North Dakota Badlands, Roosevelt is remembered with a national park that bears his name and honors the memory of the original conservationist president.”
- “In 1905, TR’s love for nature manifested in the establishment of the U.S. Forest Service. The federal agency has become one of the country’s prime forces in safeguarding the nation’s forests and grasslands.”
Indeed. In fact, Roosevelt set aside 230 million acres of land for public use during his nearly eight years in the presidency, and here in western North Dakota, we have more than a million acres of national grasslands, managed by the Forest Service Roosevelt created. About 140,000 of those acres are still considered “roadless,” with vehicle access restricted to ranchers who need to get to their cattle on prairie trails. And of those, 40,000 acres in four scattered parcels are completely free from vehicle access and considered “suitable for wilderness.”
And that’s where BCA comes in. A dozen years ago or so, it developed a proposal called “Prairie Legacy Wilderness,” and began seeking support from our congressional delegation to pass legislation creating a federal Wilderness, with a capital W. It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s still a dream. Federal Wilderness designation is a hard sell in Washington, D.C., these days.
But now there’s talk of another approach to providing increased protection for those 40,000 acres. Some BCA members and other folks who love the Badlands have mentioned the idea of creating a national monument, designating those 40,000 roadless wilderness acres as “Prairie Legacy Wilderness National Monument.”
There are four areas, each about 10,000 acres of roadless Forest Service land, scattered across the Badlands. Two of them, majestic Bullion Butte and its shorter, flatter, neighbor Kenley Plateau, are about 20 miles south of Medora, gateway to the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and where the Presidential Library will be located. Twin Buttes is about 15 miles northwest of Medora, and the Long-X Divide is adjacent to the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, just south of Watford City. You can look at each of them in detail on the BCA website.
The proposed construction of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library offers a great opportunity for support for National Monument status. Roosevelt surely visited all these areas on horseback while he resided here, and he shot his buffalo — the reason he came west in the first place — on his first trip to the Dakota Bad Lands in 1883 in the shadow of Bullion Butte.
More importantly, it was Theodore Roosevelt himself who created the first National Monuments, using the 1906 Antiquities Act, which he shepherded through Congress and signed into law. It was one of his most significant achievements and one of which he was most proud. Visitors to his Presidential Library could get a firsthand look at the results of that act by visiting one of the monument sites —a ll are within about an hour’s drive from the site of the library. In fact, when the Presidential Library is done, you’ll be able to stand on its porch and look directly at the spot TR shot his buffalo. Nice planning, TRPLF.
National Monument status does not offer all the protections for the roadless areas that Wilderness designation does, but it also does not require congressional action. Theodore Roosevelt saw to that in 1906 — they are created by Presidential designation. Here’s a link to a website with everything you ever wanted to know about National Monuments.
It seems to me that there’s a perfect opportunity here for these two nonprofit organizations to team up and do one more thing really big, bold, thing. Adding a new national monument as well as a real presidential library to the existing package of Badlands attractions, including Historic Medora and all its amenities, and the three units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which includes the Elkhorn Ranch, TR’s home when he lived and ranched here in the Bad Lands, would be a fitting tribute to our great Conservation President.
I hope they do it.
Before you finish your second cup of coffee, let me add one more piece to this story. There’s a third organization doing the work of preserving TR’s legacy here, and that’s the Theodore Roosevelt Center, located at Dickinson State University, just down Interstate 94 from the Badlands. And there’s a significant connection between it and the other two.
The first time I ever heard the words “Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library” spoken in North Dakota was at a meeting in the president’s office at Dickinson State, and they were spoken by noted North Dakota humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson. Clay had just signed a deal with DSU President Lee Vickers as the Roosevelt Scholar at DSU, and they had invited my wife, Lillian Crook, who was the university’s library director and also, coincidentally, the founder of BCA, to talk about hooking up the DSU Library and Clay’s Roosevelt program. (She let me tag along). Clay thought maybe we should think big, and he began talking about a Presidential Library.
Out of that meeting came something called the Theodore Roosevelt Center, which today, thanks to North Dakota legislative support championed by State Rep. Bob Martinson, who has led efforts to provide funding for the Center, is creating a digital library of all things Theodore Roosevelt, with already more than 80,000 items in its digital archives, for use by scholars, the general public and TR enthusiasts. (If you’ve got nothing else to do today, you can look at all 80,000 of them on their website). It now has its own building on the DSU campus, directed by project manager Sharon Kilzer, who, coincidentally, was at the table at that very first meeting nearly 20 years ago taking notes as Dr. Vickers’ administrative assistant.
And from that germ of an idea about a digital library came the proposal for a bricks and mortar library, which will soon be the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library, and which will no doubt partner with its sister organization in Dickinson to provide an amazing tribute to one of our greatest presidents. Right here in western North Dakota. Alongside a national park which bears his name — the only national park named for a president — and maybe a new national monument preserving the Badlands landscape that president loved.
How wonderful it is to see North Dakotans dream big. And even more wonderful to see those dreams come true.
If you’d like a sneak preview of what the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library is going to be about, on your next trip to Medora, stop in at the Chateau DeMores Visitor Center on the west end of Medora (right beside the road to the proposed site of the Presidential Library). There, the folks from the State Historical Society of North Dakota have set up a display of artwork that will show you what you’ll see when the Presidential Library is done, and they also given over some space to the TRPLF for an amazing technology display that signals a new era in the creative arts in North Dakota. It’s a hologram room. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. Just click here, and here, to take a look. The first is TR as a boy. The second is a portrait of the president’s father, Theodore Rosevelt Sr. This is the new standard for Presidential Libraries. We’ve seen something like it in the other libraries we’ve visited, but this one is something really special. Expect a lot of this when it is done.