As of today I have signed off as a contributor to my favorite magazine, Dakota Country. I’m old, and I’m tired of a lifetime of deadlines. Today, Jan.1, 2023 — it’s gonna take some time to get used to typing that number and getting it right on checks — is the first time in almost 10 years I haven’t sent an article to Bill Mitzel, Dakota Country’s editor, on the first day of the month. I think I’ve shared every one of those articles here. So this space is going to be a bit empty at the beginning of each month from now on.
I’m going to keep writing, though, for me, and for you. The beauty of a blog is no deadlines — I can write whenever I want to, and whenever I have something to say. And as I told my friend, Mike Jacobs, who quit writing his political column in the Grand Forks Herald recently, shedding a dreadful weekly deadline, when I encouraged him to start his own blog, having a blog to write on gives you a reason to keep looking around. You never want to quit looking around. In fact, Mike’s very first venture into self-publishing, nearly 50 years ago now, was his tabloid newspaper, The Onlooker, the 1970s version of a blog. I was an occasional contributor to that, too.
So here is my final article for Dakota Country. The best thing about my time there is that it let me reach thousands of readers who don’t spend a lot of time online, reading blogs. They’re busy hunting and fishing and camping, and they might grab a magazine when they’re sitting on the crapper in the morning, or relaxing in an easy chair with a beer in the evening. And Bill let me say anything I wanted in his magazine, so a lot of those readers probably didn’t like what they read, but they were stuck with me anyway, and maybe I even changed a few minds about some things.
We’ve Done Our Best To Protect The Bad Lands
When you are reading this, I hope to be on a beach somewhere. This is my 90th regular monthly article for Dakota Country, and it will be my last. I’m 75. I’m hanging up my typewriter (well, OK, my laptop).
I have enjoyed sharing my thoughts about what we can do to protect North Dakota’s greatest asset, our Bad Lands. I’ll keep going there until the day I die (Lillian says she’ll drive me when I can’t anymore), and I’ll probably send my editor, Bill Mitzel, a dispatch from there from time to time to share with you.
My entry to the pages of Dakota Country started with a conversation I had with Bill and Tweed Roosevelt, the great-grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, over a beer at a local watering hole in the fall of 2013.
In those 90 articles, I’ve written a number of times about TR, who lived and ranched in the Bad Lands in the 1880s before becoming president of the United States, including my hunting trips with his great-grandson, Tweed. I’ve written about Harold Schafer funding the effort to bring wild turkeys to North Dakota, about wildlife crossings under U.S. Highway 85 to protect bighorn sheep, the beginning of the North Dakota Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, bad bridges over the Little Missouri State Scenic River, bad oil refineries just over the fence from Theodore Roosevelt National Park, bad Bad Lands County Commissioners, about presidents, senators, congressmen, governors and attorneys general (some good, some bad), sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse, snow geese and Canada Geese, gravel pits, oil wells, saltwater spills, gas flares and grass fires, national grasslands, national parks and state school sections. And Tony Dean. God, I miss that man.
I’ve put in some long days on Bad Lands trails doing “research” for my articles. But as young TR once said, during his time out here, “The eight-hour day does not apply to cowboys.” There’s not much better than seeing a Bad Lands sunrise and a Bad Lands sunset on the same day.
Many of my articles have been about seeking Wilderness (with a capital W) status for sensitive areas of the Bad Lands, areas that so far have been protected from development but are always being eyed by greedy oil executives and county commissioners (not to mention elected North Dakota officials).
Early in this century, there were some good efforts made by a group called the North Dakota Wilderness Coalition, headed up by Bismarck’s Jan Swenson, longtime (now retired) executive director of Badlands Conservation Alliance, and the legendary Bart Koehler of the Wilderness Society. But they just have never been able to convince the state’s congressional delegation to sponsor federal legislation to do that, under the federal Wilderness Act of 1964. Those efforts almost never succeed without support from a state’s delegation.
For most of the past year, I’ve been writing about the four areas that need some enhanced protection. If we can’t get Wilderness, then one of these days we’re going to have to gather around a campfire and talk about a new route to protect them: a national monument. The Antiquities Act of 1906, signed into law by President Roosevelt himself, allows the president of the United States to “protect objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated on lands owned or controlled by the federal government” by establishing national monuments. It might be time to do that. We have a friend in the White House right now. We wouldn’t get all the protection that Wilderness affords, but we’d at least be able to take care of what we have now.
I had hoped that six years ago, when we elected a new North Dakota governor, Doug Burgum, that we would begin to see more careful attention paid to protecting the Bad Lands. Burgum himself owns ranch land in the Little Missouri State Scenic River drainage and has spent much time out there. At the suggestion of some of us fellow Bad Lands enthusiasts, he reinstituted the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission, the official state commission charged with protecting the river and its valley. But he and his state health officer caved to the oil industry, seemingly about 15 minutes into his first term, and I think there have been more threats to that fragile environment in Burgum’s six years in office then the terms of all the governors before him.
I’ve also paid pretty close attention to the proposed new bridge across the Little Missouri River north of Medora. The bridge is probably now closer to reality than it ever has been, following a County Commission election in November. There appears to be two new Billings County Commissioners who would favor the use of eminent domain to condemn land on the historic Short Ranch to build the bridge and the approach roads.
Taking a rancher’s land by force to build an oil truck freeway through their ranch doesn’t seem very neighborly in a small, sparsely populated county, so we’ll have to wait until sometime this spring to find out if they have the cojones to do it. In any case, if will likely be headed back to court for a judge’s disposition before any dirt work is done on the roads and bridge.
A few miles north, Billings County’s gravel pit across from the Elkhorn Ranch doesn’t seem to have created much disturbance, thanks to the diligence of the U.S. Forest Service, which has restricted gravel mining operations during raptor nesting seasons and made the miners follow strict reclamation practices. I’ve been to the Elkhorn Ranch a few times and haven’t heard any noise from across the river. But maybe I’ve just been lucky to be there at the right times. And my hearing’s not what it used to be.
And then there’s that damn refinery. I won’t go into a bunch of detail because I’ve written about it a number of times, so you already know that this California company named Meridian Energy Group wants to build its refinery just three miles from the boundary of our national park.
The original timeline was for them to be shipping out refined diesel and gasoline a couple of years ago, but the company has had serious financial problems, and it hasn’t been able to find a Wall Street firm to finance the billion-dollar project. I don’t know if that means the folks on Wall Street have a conscience and don’t want to be behind a project snubbing its nose at President Roosevelt’s park, or if the deal just doesn’t make financial sense. I suspect the latter, but I hope the former has a little bit to do with it too.
2022 was a good year in the Bad Lands, and for the Bad Lands. First of all, nothing really bad happened this year. The drought and prairie fires of 2021 blossomed into a lush green landscape with this year’s late spring and early summer moisture. I remarked in June that the Bad Lands were as green as I had ever seen them, and as I drove past the private ranch lands later in the summer, I saw more big golden bales than I have ever seen in parcels of hay land along both sides of the Little Missouri. Instead of buying hay this year, some ranchers were actually able to sell some.
The best news of the year was the failure of the state of North Dakota and a few county commissioners to convince a federal judge to sacrifice the remaining “Suitable for Wilderness” parcels to the oil industry. We’ve got about 40,000 acres out there still protected from roads and traffic (a far cry from the half-million we had when I was a young man, but still …), thanks to a ruling by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Our North Dakota attorney general, Drew Wrigley, who made the ultimate decision to quit filing more useless appeals — his predecessor, Wayne Stenehjem, had filed the appeal with the Eighth Circuit — was re-elected by a landslide in November, and I hope we can keep him on our side on this issue. I think I’ll invite him on one of my hikes next summer, so he can really appreciate what he’s done. The world looks a little different from the top of Bullion Butte than it does from the top of the Capitol building.
But there will be more threats to the Bad Lands, and we’ll need to be ever vigilant and keep a watchful eye on greedy politicians and oil barons. I’m not going away, and I’ll send you a Letter From The Bad Lands from time to time when problems arise.
Meanwhile, I’ll close this chapter of my life with the words of Theodore Roosevelt, taken from his 1885 book “Hunting Trips of a Ranchman,” written mostly in evenings on the porch of his log ranch house at the Elkhorn, shaded by the giant cottonwoods that lined the banks of the Little Missouri River. Roosevelt wrote:
“The early rides in the spring mornings have a charm all their own, for they are taken when, for the one and only time of the year, the same brown landscape of these high plains turns to a vivid green, as the new grass sprouts and the trees and bushes thrust forth the young leaves; and at dawn, with the dew glittering everywhere, all things show at their best and freshest. The flowers are out and a man may gallop for miles at a stretch with his horse’s hoofs sinking at every stride into the carpet of prairie-roses, whose short stalks lift the beautiful blossoms but a few inches from the ground.”
Thank you for that, President Roosevelt, and thank you to all you Dakota Country readers who have let me into your living rooms and easy chairs for the past ten years or so.
P.S. One last note to readers. Careful observers will notice that in the column above and in all previous columns, I use Bad Lands as two words, both capitalized, instead of badlands. It’s a continuation of a campaign started by my friend, Tracy Potter, when he and I worked together in the North Dakota Tourism office. He convinced me that out of respect for that wonderful place we should spell it as Theodore Roosevelt did, two words, Bad Lands, capital B, capital L.
Tracy was right. Badlands is just a place. Bad Lands accurately and triumphantly describes that place.
Dakota Country magazine’s editorial policy, however, is one word, but capitalized, Badlands. Hey, when you own the press and buy the ink, you get to set your own policy. Fine with me. But when I reprint the articles here, I change it back to my style. Maybe one of these days the world will agree with Tracy and me and Theodore Roosevelt.