Energy Development Knocking On Door Of Elkhorn Ranch At Theodore Roosevelt National Park

An oil company is proposing to sink four oil wells on a 1,280-acre site roughly 100 feet from this sign on the border of the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Kurt Repanshek photo.

North Dakota's energy boom continues to close in on Theodore Roosevelt National Park, where officials are concerned about a proposal to drill for oil on the doorstep of Theodore Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch.

While officials for XTO Energy have said they are discussing alternative drill sites with federal land managers, the current proposal is set to go before state permitting officials on March 28.

"The company staked out a preferred location. They don't have a permit to do it there, which is why you may have seen some of the news articles saying it was premature for us to be concerned about it," Theodore Roosevelt Superintendent Valerie Naylor said Thursday. "But the way they staked it out, it would be a very large oil pad and the edge of it would be 100 feet from the park boundary."

The Elkhorn Ranch is where a young Theodore Roosevelt gained his appreciation for the outdoors and his conservation bent. Before he developed his barrel chest, and before he so strongly developed his conservation ethos, Theodore Roosevelt came to the Dakota Territory to hunt bison. It was the first foray in a landscape and way of life that, he would later admit, "took the snob" out of him.

It was in 1884, after his wife and mother died on the same day, Valentine's Day, that the future president returned to the Dakota Territory and paid a man $400 for the rights to ranch the land that became known as the Elkhorn Ranch.

While the ranch house no longer stands, its foundation rocks remain, as do some of the cottonwood trees that once shaded the house and the porch from which Mr. Roosevelt would escape the heat with a book or simply to rock in his chair while taking in the Little Missouri River and the badlands that it carved into the landscape.

That is the setting threatened by the proposed oil wells.

"Our situation is that any drilling there would be devastating to the Elkhorn, because it's so close," Superintendent Naylor said. "The beauty of the Elkhorn is that it's very much like it was when Roosevelt found it in 1884. Quiet, pristine, our most important historic site in the national park. We're trying to maintain that feeling that he had there. And you can't do that with oil wells 100 feet from the boundary."

Not only would the edge of the drill site be 100 feet from the park boundary, but the staking done by the oil company indicates the drill site would be roughly 1,800 feet across, the superintendent said.

"There would be four oil wells, plus all the related infrastructure," she said, adding that all the traffic heading to the drill site -- 2,000 truck trips per well -- would travel the same access road that passes "right by the Forest Service Elkhorn Campground, the Maah Daah Hey Trail, and then the Elkhorn (Ranch).

"We certainly have to treat it as a major threat. They are asking for authorization to drill four wells in that spacing unit, and the way that unit is situated, there aren't very many other places to drill there. I think it's a real issue, that it could go right next to the Elkhorn Ranch."

While park officials have had to deal with other drilling proposals tied to the explosion of drilling activity in North Dakota associated with the Bakken Formation, this is the worst situation they've ever been confronted with, according to Superintendent Naylor.

"It's the biggest one that we're concerned about. There have been others that we're concerned about, and there are some that we were concerned about but we know they will just happen around the park," she said. "But this one is probably the greatest single threat to the park in its 66-year history."

Comments

A global commodity to overshadow the President who tied conservation and wilderness to American exceptionalism.

There's still a possibility that the site could be moved at least a little further from the park. According to news reports, "XTO spokesman Jeff Neu said the company is consulting with federal officials about an alternative location, and that protecting the environment is a priority."

The ultimate location of this and similar nearby wells, which will be drilled on public land managed by the U. S. Forest Service, will reveal whether "protecting the environment" is really "a priority" for XTO Energy – which is a subsidiary of ExxonMobil Corp.

For a bit of perspective, it's not like there's a sense of urgency to drill in this specific location right next to the park, and there are plenty of alternative sites in the area.

According to one report, "A record 8,100 production wells have been drilled mostly to tap into the massive [Bakken Shale] formation that underlies most of the western half of the state, and these wells now pump as much as 23 million barrels of oil a month, according to state statistics."

"Within the next decade or so it's estimated the state could house as many as 40,000 wells with much of the development moving farther south and southeast across the badlands -- and onto and around public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service."

Given that much potential for development elsewhere, it's not too much to ask for a reasonable buffer on lands already in public ownership around places like the Elkhorn Ranch.

Jim,

Thanks for the supplement. One of my favorite parks, and one that tends to concern me the most. I'm grateful for the Traveler's coverage of the potential threats drilling poses to TRNP--nice to be able to forward the links.

XTO has withdrawn its request to drill at this site.

Justin - thanks for lettin us know! I found a news story at this link.

Think I'll even send XTO a short email via their website, thanking them for their decision. When energy companies decide to pass on a potential well in such circumstances, it's worth letting them know their decision has resulted in some positive PR.

That's a good idea, Jim. I'll do the same.