A National Register Nomination Kicks Up a Fuss in North Dakota

During the 1880s, President Theodore Roosevelt operated his Elkhorn Ranch from a cabin located on this site on the Little Missouri River. USDI photo.

North Dakotans are voicing strong objections to a federal proposal to add about 12,000 acres of ranchland in and near Theodore Roosevelt National Park to the National Register of Historic Places. Although Federal officials insist that the listing would be benign, locals fear that it may bring unacceptable land-use constraints.

The U.S. Forest Service administers the 3.8 million-acre National Grasslands system. In April 2007, the agency purchased the Eberts Ranch, a 5,200-acre private property situated along the Little Missouri River in the western North Dakota badlands about 35 miles north of Medora. The land is now part of the Little Missouri National Grasslands and is administered by the Dakota Prairie Grasslands (Medora Ranger District). Additional pertinent details about the property can be found in the USDA’s Elkhorn Ranchlands Assessment.

Although the Eberts Ranch has important grazing, wildlife habitat, and scenic values, the Forest Service bought the ranch from the Eberts primarily because it includes part of the historically significant Elkhorn Ranch. Back in the 1880s, President Theodore Roosevelt owned the Elkhorn Ranch and operated it from a cabin situated across the river at a site that is now part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Much of the original Elkhorn Ranch now lies within the park borders, and what little remains of the original Elkhorn Ranch buildings (not even the foundations are left) are preserved at the park’s remote and seldom-visited Elkhorn Ranch Site.

The Elkhorn Ranch property that the Forest Service bought is situated between the park’s North Unit and South Unit. For a map of the area, visit this site. (The map shows both the North and South Units of the park property, but the boundaries of the Eberts/Elkhorn Ranch and the specific location of the park's Elkhorn Ranch Site are not shown on the map.)

The Maltese Cross Ranch (aka Chimney Butte Ranch), another ranch that Teddy Roosevelt owned, is preserved in the park’s South Unit. Roosevelt considered the Elkhorn his “home ranch,” and actively operated it from 1884 to 1887.

In light of the great historic significance of the Elkhorn Ranch and adjacent grazing land -- Roosevelt said he would never have become President if he had not been toughened and inspired by his experiences as a North Dakota rancher -- the Forest Service and the Park Service want to add the Elkhorn Ranch and a large parcel of neighboring parkland (roughly 12,000 acres in all) to the National Register of Historic Places.

The National Register nomination has alarmed many North Dakotans. Even though the Forest Service has assured area residents that National Register listing of the historic properties would be just a benign formality, and that the Forest Service-administered portion will remain open for grazing and other economic uses (including oil and gas development and highway construction), many North Dakota residents are suspicious that economically harmful land-use restrictions and bureaucratic mischief lurk somewhere in the fine print. As far as they are concerned, this “mere formality” is an unnecessary action at best and an artfully-disguised federal land grab at worst.

Federal officials plan to meet with state and local officials to discuss the nomination and smooth ruffled feathers.

Postscript: Conservation groups contributed $500,000 toward the $5.3 million purchase price of the Elkhorn Ranch in 2007.

Traveler Trivia, no extra charge: Teddy Roosevelt paid $400 for the Elkhorn Ranch in 1884.