July 28, 2008

Billings County Wants to Build a Bridge or Low Water… [Derived Headline]

Billings County wants to build a bridge or low water crossing over the Little Missouri River somewhere in the vicinity of Theodore Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch Site, which is located 35 miles north of Medora. There isn't a single bridge between Medora and the Long X Bridge on U.S. 85 near Watford City. That's a distance of 50 eagle and 70 automobile miles.

Billings County wants to build the crossing mostly to facilitate the oil industry, but the project is mainly being sold to the public as a way to accommodate recreationists and enable emergency fire and ambulance vehicles to reach the remote homesteads of North Dakota's Badlands.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to increase the efficiency of the oil extraction industry. The world is hungry for oil. Western North Dakota needs the economic activity. A state that wrings its hands constantly about outmigration and depopulation needs to work hard to accommodate an industry that employs our young people and attracts workers from elsewhere to the "emptied prairie."

Still ...

I don't feel strongly about most issues. I feel very, very strongly about this one. The Badlands and the Little Missouri River Valley are North Dakota's greatest natural treasure. Anything we do that degrades the beauty, the starkness, the pristinity or the quiet of that glorious swath of country between Marmarth and Lake Sakakawea is, in my opinion, a short-sighted and profound mistake.

It's not the proposed bridge that bothers me. It's what the crossing will enable.

The scenery of the Little Missouri River Valley is worth more to the human spirit, to our self-identity as North Dakotans and Americans, than all the minerals that ever will be removed from below our soil. America's greatest conservationist President Theodore Roosevelt understood that "the live deer is more valuable than the dead carcass" to a western state's attractiveness. When we North Dakotans think of who we are and what North Dakota means, we invariably gravitate to the Badlands.

What makes the Little Missouri River Valley so charming, so compelling as North Dakota's premier tourist and recreational destination, is that it looks as if humans have agreed to leave it alone.

In the ideal world, there would be no new roads, bridges, oil rigs, recreational sites or other industrial structures near or within the river bluffs that embrace the Little Missouri River. Even in the real (not ideal) world, it would be quite possible for all of us to agree to this standard of land stewardship and yet still enable oil development, traditional ranching, recreation, hunting and even new ranchettes in the valley.

In other words, we don't want to stop "progress." But we need to work very hard and very carefully to insure that economic development in the Badlands is done in the least disruptive, least destructive and least disrespectful way. We have to get it right. We have to go forward in a way that shows that there are values that we regard as equal in importance to profit.

Of the Grand Canyon, Roosevelt said in 1903, "Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it." That's precisely how I feel. That should be the official motto of the North Dakota Badlands. It should be printed in the first paragraph of every environmental impact statement for every proposed new development in the Badlands and only if that standard receives the weight it deserves in the deliberations should new developments go forward.

The easy thing to do with the Badlands would be to shrug our shoulders and let things unfold with minimal debate and social planning. Let's do the hard thing instead. Let's find a meaningful way to create a real statewide dialogue about how to balance the values and the pressures at work in the Badlands, and then let's go out of our way to preserve the thing we love even as we find creative ways to extract the oil.

If there must be a crossing somewhere between the North Unit and the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, I think we should all insist on two things. First, the No. 1 consideration should be that the structure be built where it will have the least possible impact on the Roosevelt Elkhorn Ranch Site and the "greater Elkhorn Ranch," which includes the former Eberts Ranch. In this regard, there are four impacts to worry about: dust, noise, visual impairment and the equally important but intangible "shattering of the spirit of the place."

As anyone who has camped in the Cottonwood Campground in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park knows, noise travels far in the Badlands. From your sleeping bag at Cottonwood Campground, you can listen all night long to highway traffic on Interstate 94 and the coal trains that are hauling Wyoming and Montana bituminous to Midwestern power plants. I'm no noise expert, but I've listened to the oil trucks rumble through the Badlands all of my adult life. They have a way of disturbing the peace of the place.

The possibility of peace - the liturgical simplification of our scattered and distracted lives in a place that retains something essential of the pre-industrial magnificence of America - should take center stage at any discussion of the future of the Badlands, particularly where they approach the three units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Second, we should insist that any new crossing - carefully located to minimize its impact on North Dakota's national park - be an actual bridge, not a bargain basement "low water crossing" consisting of box culverts overlain with a rough concrete road cap. Two low water crossings already mar the Little Missouri River in North Dakota: one south of Marmarth, the other the VVV (Triple V) crossing on the southwest face of Bullion Butte.

Low water crossings are nothing more than cheap and clunky ways to get vehicles across the Little Missouri River. On the spectrum of crossing structures, they are much closer to "leaky dams" than anything that could honestly be called a bridge. They are dangerous because they have no guardrails. A canoe or kayak can float under a bridge. A low water crossing requires a portage. That's enough to spoil a float trip. It also would seem to me to violate the idea that the Little Missouri is a "wild and scenic river."

The Elkhorn Ranch Site was the Dakota home of one of the most remarkable men of American history. It's an understated national shrine to intelligent conservation practices. Roosevelt believed in economic development, but he wanted to pursue it in a way that "conserved" our natural resources for future use and "preserved" places in the American West of extraordinary natural beauty, places that reminded all of us of what American meant in the era of Daniel Boone.

The Elkhorn Ranch is one of the most important sanctuaries in the American West. We should cherish it - to use TR's words - the way we would cherish and protect a cathedral or a Native American holy site.

Why would we ever let ourselves treat it like an oil patch?

(Clay Jenkinson is the director of the Dakota Institute. He is also the Theodore Roosevelt Scholar-in-residence at Dickinson State University. He lives in Bismarck. Contact Clay at [email protected])

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