Park History: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

One of five units of the National Park System connected with Theodore Roosevelt, this national park in North Dakota embraces the landscape that both gave solace to the future president and helped shape his views on conservation.

Before he developed his barrel chest, and before he so strongly developed his conservation ethos, Theodore Roosevelt came to the Dakota Territory in the 1880s to hunt bison. It was the first foray into a landscape and way of life that, he would later admit, "took the snob" out of him.

Considering the year -- 1883 -- and the frontier landscape, that's not surprising. Here, in the rutted and rugged badlands that rise up around the Little Missouri River, the young Mr. Roosevelt felt himself pretty much out of his element, having grown up in New York City. But his thirst for the West was greatly visible to his companions, and his initial discomfort with the setting was recognized by Roosevelt himself.

"There were all kinds of things that I was afraid of at first, ranging from grizzly bears to mean horses and gunfighters," he noted in a diary entry in 1883. "But by acting as if I was not afraid, I gradually ceased to be afraid."

Nearly broken by the death of his wife, Alice, two days after giving birth to their daughter, and his mother on the same day, Valentine's Day 1884, in the same house, Roosevelt exiled himself back to the Dakota Territory. He paid another man $400 so he could take over ranching the land along the Little Missouri that soon became the headquarters for his ranching operations, the Elkhorn Ranch.

He succinctly summed up life along the Little Missouri in his book, The Home Ranch:

My home ranch lies on both sides of the Little Missouri, the nearest ranchman above me being about twelve, and the nearest below me about ten, miles distant. The general course of the stream here is northerly, but, while flowing through my ranch, it takes a greater westerly reach of some three miles, walled in, as always, between chains of steep, high bluffs half a mile or more apart. The stream twists down through the valley in long sweeps, leaving oval wooded bottoms, first on one side and then on the other; and in an open glade among the thick-growing timber stands the long, low house of hewn logs.

Just in front of the ranch veranda is a line of old cottonwoods that shade it during the fierce heats of summer, rendering it always cool and pleasant. But a few feet beyond these trees comes the cut-off bank of the river, through whose broad, sandy bed the shallow stream winds as if lost, except when a freshet fills it from brim to brim with foaming yellow water. The bluffs that wall in the river-valley curve back in semicircles, rising from its alluvial bottom generally as abrupt cliffs, but often as steep, grassy slopes that lead up to create level plateaus; and the line is broken every mile or two by the entrance of a coulee, or dry creek, whose head branches may be twenty miles back. Above us, where the river comes round the bend, the valley is very narrow, and the high buttes bounding it rise sheer and barren, into scalped hill-peaks and naked knife-blade ridges."

According to National Park Service historians, proposals to create a national park in the badlands of North Dakota first arose not long after President Roosevelt's death.

Within a short time after the death of Theodore Roosevelt on January 6, 1919, there were proposals to establish a memorial in his honor. Various studies took place across the country that included ideas for national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges, and scenic roads as well as state parks. Sylvane Ferris, a friend and business associate of TR during his cattle ranching days in the Dakota Badlands, appointed a committee to pick a site and Medora was selected. The 1921 North Dakota legislature instructed their representatives in Congress to assist by setting land aside for a park.

The Little Missouri badlands were explored in 1924 by a party of 40 to outline an area for a Roosevelt National Park. This tour resulted in the formation of the Roosevelt Memorial National Park Association (later, the Great North Dakota Association). The following year, a tour of "cowboys and Congressmen," a larger group of federal, state, and regional officials plus interested parties and news media conducted an inspection camping trip through the "Grand Canyon of the Little Missouri," which cemented the park idea. One early plan called for a 2,030 square mile park. This proposal was not without its critics because the land was too valuable for local ranchers and their livestock.

Roger Toll, Superintendent of Rocky Mountain National Park, submitted a report on the proposed park to National Park Service Director Stephen T. Mather in 1928 in which he favored the establishment of a small national monument stating, "A national park does not seem to be justified."

Again, various studies, proposals and counter-proposals for a park took place. Some suggested a national forest be established. Then came the "dirty thirties." Drought, overgrazing, and crop failures forced many homesteaders to sell their land to the federal government for as little as $2.00 per acre. In western North Dakota land was acquired mainly for setting up leased grazing and rehabilitation. Today, most of what was purchased under the auspices of the Resettlement Act is now part of the Little Missouri National Grasslands. A portion of these new federal holdings was earmarked for a park. In 1934 a cooperative agreement to start a Roosevelt Regional Park Project was signed by the Resettlement Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), National Park Service, and the State of North Dakota. The federal government wanted the project to become a state park.

The CCC operations began immediately and were administered by National Park Service employees. The North and South Roosevelt Regional Parks had their own camps. By 1935, these sites were designated the Roosevelt Recreation Demonstration Area (RDA). Development by workers from the CCC, as well as Works Projects Administration (WPA) and Emergency Relief Administration (ERA), included construction of roads, trails, picnic areas, campgrounds, and buildings.

All projects ended in 1941. Who would accept management responsibility for this land was still uncertain. When North Dakota’s state government announced that it did not want the land as a state park, approval was obtained in 1942 to retain the RDA for the purpose of study for possible inclusion into the National Park System. North Dakota Representative William Lemke championed the fight to establish a national park, an action which met resistance from NPS officials. The next few years saw further studies and political maneuvering.

In November 1946, the RDA was officially transferred to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service as Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge after legislation to establish a park was vetoed because some felt the area did not possess those qualities that merit national park ranking. Undaunted, Congressman Lemke pressed on. Finally, on April 25, 1947, after several compromises, President Truman signed the bill that created Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park. This included lands that roughly make up the South Unit and the Elkhorn Ranch site today. The North Unit was added to the memorial park on June 12, 1948. Additional boundary revisions were made in later years.

As a memorial park, it was the only one of its kind in the National Park System. Eventually, in addition to a connection with a president, the land was recognized for its diverse cultural and natural resources. On November 10, 1978, the area was given national park status when President Carter signed Public Law 95-625 that changed the memorial park to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This same law placed 29,920 acres of the park under the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Today, the 70,448-acre Theodore Roosevelt National Park is home to a variety of plants and animals, and continues to memorialize the 26th president for his enduring contributions to the safekeeping and protection of our nation’s resources.

The park includes scenic badlands along the Little Missouri River and part of Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch.