Lost Frontier: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

As the North Dakota oil rush closes in on Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the Badlands’ most ardent defender wonders if it’s time to leave.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

If one were to draw a circle around the Bakken, the park’s north unit would fall just south of center. It is, by now, an island—perhaps the only place left in this park of North Dakota where a person can wander for miles without crossing a scoria road or seeing a frack sock dance like a blowup doll in the wind.

Photo by Flickr/National Parks Conservation Association

Content Tools

Most North Dakotans will not talk badly about the oil drilling that has consumed their state, even if they despise it, but they are glad to reminisce about the way things were before. People were friendlier, they like to say. Kids played in yards, neighbors waved, and families went driving just for fun. The prairie was as they wanted it—a place few would ever go. They say there will never be anywhere like it again. They say, if you want a taste of how things were, drive west of Miles City—or east of Minot, or south of Dickinson—though, even as crude prices drop and the boom slows to a creep, you must go farther and farther afield. The worst thing about the development, if they are angry enough to admit it, is that there is no escape. For the most part, a company will drill a well or build a pipeline wherever it pleases. This is deeply unsettling to landowners, no matter the financial rewards, who have had to learn that the places and things they hold sacred—their privacy, among them—are not sacred anymore. In four years of reporting in the Bakken, as the oilfield region is called, I have often wondered why so many people are reluctant to admit their discontent. At times, I have been told, We North Dakotans are too polite; or, God help us if we sound ungrateful. So it was all the more surprising, one afternoon in September, when I got a call from a North Dakotan named John Heiser, who introduced himself as “a man who speaks his mind.”


Receive the Utne Uplifter


Heiser has worked for 41 years in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, in the Badlands south of Watford City. The park, he told me, was “a colossal mess” and “inundated with oil people.” The previous morning, he had found a scatter of shotgun cartridges and clay pigeons along the north boundary; the year before, some “yahoos” had shot a bison to death inside the park. “These clueless redneck fools have nothing else to do but kill things,” he said, adding that this was only “part of the truth.” What “truth” did he mean? “The mess!” he exclaimed. “Defacing natural features! Tipping over pedestal rocks! We’re finding felons from other states, meth, marijuana—pint jars of marijuana!” Then came the kicker: On a recent Sunday, a bomb exploded on the edge of the park. Heiser was digging a trail when he saw it—a black column of smoke hundreds of feet high and shimmering with heat like a midsummer day. He figured an oil rig had blown, but when he looked through his binoculars, he saw a pickup truck on fire. Later, he would hear that two other trucks had fled the scene. “We’re being invaded,” he said, and suggested I come see it for myself.

 We met on a warm October day in the north unit of the park, in a sparsely wooded valley flanked by reptilian cliffs. Heiser was in good spirits, and as we traced the Little Missouri River east, he quizzed me on the difference between sage and winterfat. But when we turned north, he froze. His quiet can be unnerving, since it is rare. He speaks in rehearsed phrases so tightly strung that syllables blur, words are skipped over and sentences broken off. He touched a finger to his ear. Then it came—two cracks of a gun. His jaw tensed. His skull began to quake. Never had I seen so physical a reaction. “That’s these fuckers,” he said. “Oh, these fuckers make me so mad. I curse these sons of bitches. I curse them!”

Heiser wore black leather boots, faded jeans, a green flannel shirt with pearl snaps, and a JanSport fanny pack held together with five safety pins. He has slate-blue eyes and white hairs that stick out from his temples. He refuses to wear sunglasses, and his stubborn squint has left a thin white crease across the bridge of his nose. At 64, he has the vigor of a teenage boy. Spit from all his talking crusts in the corners of his mouth, and when he is frustrated, which these days is often, he presses his hands to his cheeks and drops his jaw, like the tortured figure in Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

The source of his torment is the oil boom, which has crept closer to the park each year since it began around 2009. If one were to draw a circle around the Bakken, the park’s north unit would fall just south of center. It is, by now, an island—perhaps the only place left in this part of North Dakota where a person can wander for miles without crossing a scoria road or seeing a frack sock dance like a blowup doll in the wind. Its bluffs overlook private and public land, both heavily drilled; dozens of derricks are visible from some vantages. In 2013, the Little Missouri National Grasslands—more than a million acres spread between the Missouri River and the state’s border with South Dakota—sent $81 million to the National Treasury, 40 percent from the McKenzie Ranger District, which borders the park and contains some of the Bakken’s richest deposits. Across the district’s half-million acres, there are 800 miles of pipe and 340 “facilities,” such as well pads, compressor stations, tank batteries and buildings. In 2013, an oil company proposed drilling within 100 feet of Elkhorn Ranch, where Theodore Roosevelt lived from 1884 to 1887, and where, the story goes, he became a conservationist. Some call Elkhorn Ranch the “Walden Pond of the West.” Here, you might say, the national park idea that Roosevelt advocated has proven most prescient: that if all else were given up to commerce, at least some land would be saved.

Heiser began working in the park in June 1973, soon after graduating from Dickinson State University. He already knew the park well because his father, a rancher, was a maintenance man there. In 1978, the year it changed status from a national memorial park to a national park, with 80 percent of the north unit designated as wilderness, Heiser became a backcountry ranger. He built fences to contain the park’s bison and chased them back in when they escaped. He named many features in the north unit—Eagle Butte, Coffee Creek, Whiskey Wash, Big Horn Bump—and built many of the trails, too. You can safely say that no one knows the park better than Heiser, nor has anyone worked there longer. His job has changed over the years, but he is best described as park ambassador. If you want to ski in midwinter, he will take you. If you want to swim, he will show you where. He knows where the quicksand is, where a longhorn steer got stuck and he had to shoot it in the head. He knows weather statistics like baseball fans know batting averages and will recite them at a speed that rivals most auctioneers. People who know Heiser cannot imagine the park without him. A park law enforcement officer told me that when he pulls locals over for speeding, it is not uncommon for them to ask, “Where’s John at?” Chances are, he is “roamin’ range,” as Heiser likes to say.

As we picked our way up a sunny draw, I wondered if there was some peril in knowing a place so well. Most North Dakotans say they knew the boom had arrived when they went to the grocery store and no longer recognized a soul. Heiser says this, too, but he is more likely to mention the mule deer, elk, antelope and porcupine he’s counted dead on highway shoulders—unlucky prey to swelling traffic—or the night sky lit so bright with gas flares that he could not see the stars. He used to recognize birdsongs from a distance, but now, when he stops to listen, there is too much noise to easily place them. Noticing has its virtues, but when the details add up to something lost, they induce in Heiser a righteous anger. Nothing fans this fury more than the park’s decaying sense of sanctuary: Because it is a haven from the surrounding chaos, it is not impervious to that chaos. In 2012, near the height of the boom, the park drew more visitors than it had in two decades, many of them oil workers. “These bastards that come here have no sense of place,” Heiser said. “They don’t want to be here, so they disrespect our place.” An affront to the landscape was an affront to Heiser himself.

The crime rate inside Theodore Roosevelt National Park has indeed risen with the boom, and though it is nowhere near as high as in towns that surround the park, several people worried for my safety there as a young woman traveling alone. “You got bear spray?” a Forest Service ranger asked, when I mentioned I would camp in the north unit one night. I was confused. There were grizzlies? “No,” he chided. “Think about it.”

I did not have bear spray, but I did have a flashlight—the kind you can knock someone out with, which a boyfriend had given me years ago for this purpose. I slept with it beside my pillow and woke the next morning, relieved to see the cottonwoods backlit by dawn and the leaves quivering like swarms of flies. I drove the road west and came to a line of cars stopped behind some bison. A man emerged from the car behind mine and went onto a nearby bluff to make a call. When there was no answer, he noticed me watching him and approached. He was a welder from Georgia and had lived in Williston two years. He smiled as he said this, and I saw that he was missing his incisors. He explained that he often visited the park to photograph ducks. Once, he came in wintertime and walked to the river in the wind and snow. “It must have been cold,” I said. “Boy, that was something,” he agreed.

The bison loped off, and the welder returned to his car. In a few miles, I came to the end of the road. It began to rain. Three women in headscarves appeared in a Volkswagen, turned, and drove away. I walked to an overlook and found a man and woman huddled beneath a raincoat. The man was short and wore low-hung jeans and a black fleece imprinted with a company logo. She was shorter and bundled in sweaters. They were thrilled by the weather and laughed each time a gust of wind threw rain in their faces. The woman was from Los Angeles and sold real estate; the man, from Wisconsin, laid gas pipe. They met when the man came looking for his own apartment and moved into hers instead. It was their first time in the park, but they had decided they would come again. “There’s nobody out here,” the man said. “With the boom, there’s just so many people, and you come here, and it’s like, ‘Ahhh.’ ”

When I told Heiser about these encounters, he conceded, “Some are really nice people.” He recalled how he had been counting bighorn sheep in a park canyon, recently, when oil workers drove by. “They actually said, ‘We’re really sorry for what’s going on here.’ People apologize to me all the time, and it makes me mad, because I want to hate them all.” I had sympathized with the young couple, but looking out on the prairie, on the flares that glowed bright against the clouds, I understood how for Heiser the park had become a flimsy parapet: Even here, you could not forget the boom, and you could acutely sense how it feels to be closed in upon.

Heiser recounts his North Dakota ancestry in terms of survivorship: The long winters his great-grandparents endured after they arrived in 1891; then the Dust Bowl and the steady loss of people after that. Perhaps it is remarkable that so many have stuck it out. Had Heiser been given the choice, he might have left, too. He does not romanticize his upbringing, which he said was miserable: “My mother was cold as ice. I think she was radically unhappy.” Both parents died before Heiser’s 28th birthday, not long after his brother, who worked for an oil company, was killed in an explosion. The ranch and Heiser’s youngest brothers, 11 and 14, fell to his care. Eventually, they grew up and moved out, but Heiser went on living in the same house, raising his father’s cattle and then cattle of his own.

Today, the house is sunken into a swale amid windrows and scattered scraps of wood. Were it not for the large red barn Heiser erected some years ago, the place might look stuck in another time. The machinery is old, and anyhow, Heiser has little use for it. Every day, even in winter, he goes to the pasture on horseback or on foot. Then he cuts wood to heat his house with a 30-inch bow saw and hauls it on his shoulders. Whether this is by choice or financial necessity, he is quick to boast his moral winnings. This past winter, to feed 56 head of Hereford cattle, he burned six gallons of liquid fuel and did not start an engine for 76 days. This is odd behavior for a rancher, since most would rather not make a hard life harder. Odder still, he names his cows and cries when he sells them: “It breaks my heart every fucking time.”

No doubt neighbors wonder how Heiser turned out this way; he is molded from the same earth as they are—the same red clay and buffalo grass, the same sale barns and Sunday church dinners. He is the person they talk about, or don’t talk about, or are tired of talking about. “People either love John or they hate him,” another park officer told me. Heiser has been known to offend park administrators, too. “He’ll tell them his opinion, and they just write him off as the old-timer, and he’ll say they’re stupid,” the officer explained. “But, you know, 99 percent of the time, he’s right.”

Heiser, for his own part, claims he has “nothing in common with my people,” but if there is one thing he and his neighbors have shared in this boom, it is a sense of being invaded. Whether this distrust of outsiders is merited does not matter: Enough bad things have happened to convince them of the danger. The 2012 murder of a Montana schoolteacher, Sherry Arnold, for example, was traumatic not only because it was unfair and gruesome, but because it happened in a place where everyone once knew everyone. Heiser knew Arnold’s sister. The boom’s most troubling effects rise from this distrust. People have told me that they rarely leave their houses anymore. Some have abandoned the state altogether, and even Heiser considers doing the same. “The day when I decide, ‘Any place is better than this’—that will be a sad day,” he told me. I was struck by his rare understatement: For Heiser to leave North Dakota would be like plucking his own heart from his body. I could not imagine it.

There are signs that this broad but quiet unease is growing bolder. Even as most state leaders have embraced the boom wholeheartedly for its economic benefits, some, like Attorney General Wayne Stenejhem, have been more cautious. In December 2013, Stenejhem proposed that the state’s Industrial Commission, on which he sits, draw a two-mile buffer around its “extraordinary places”—including Theodore Roosevelt National Park—and, within these bounds, require public comment on oil and gas development. The proposal did not succeed; industry protested, as did State Rep. Roscoe Streyle, R, who wrote in an editorial in the Bismarck Tribune, “What makes these sites so ‘special’? … The state of North Dakota should be thanking the industry every day and working with it, not against it.”

Park administrators took up the fight themselves, in what Superintendent Valerie Naylor likened to a game of “Whack-a-mole.” A GIS specialist created a computer program to scan the Industrial Commission’s hearing dockets for development proposals and select those that fell within the park’s viewshed and soundscape. Then Naylor sent comments to the commission or called companies directly to work out agreements. Most companies were amenable; one withdrew a permit application for an injection well near the park boundary, and another installed mufflers on its equipment. Naylor retired in October 2014, but her successors, with the help of the Badlands Conservation Alliance, have continued her work. Landowners have challenged state and local policies with similar success. This March, in a full courthouse north of Dickinson, Dunn County residents voted to reinstate a rule requiring that a proposed oil field waste landfill obtain consent from 60 percent of landowners within a half-mile radius. “When it impacts our neighbors,” Curt Kralicek, a rancher, told the Dickinson Press, “they have rights, too.”

That month, oil prices hit $50 per barrel, a 50-percent drop from their peak in June 2014. Drillers are pulling out and the boom has waned, but development is not over; booms will come and go as prices rise and fall, until either the oil is gone or there is no need for it anymore. The Little Missouri National Grasslands, which surround much of the park, are still a great concern to park and Forest Service administrators, who recognize that damage beyond its borders could affect its ecological health. Companies have been slower to drill on the grasslands, since leases here last longer than on private land, but Jay Frederick, the McKenzie River District ranger, told me the activity could easily double. “I wish I could say that all of the oil and gas development is on already-broken ground,” he said. “That’s not the case. The truth is, we are losing native prairie.” Before the boom, 70 percent of North Dakota’s native prairie had already been lost to agriculture and other development. When I asked Frederick how much the boom would destroy, he suggested 5 percent, but added, “I really don’t know.” The Forest Service, he said, wasn’t prepared to properly monitor the chemical and ecological changes that the boom had brought. Frederick, who also has retired, hoped this would change, and was pushing companies to share well pads and pipelines to “reduce the prairie turned to scoria.”

One morning, I joined Frederick, Heiser and Joel Grieger, a rancher who leases national grassland, on a drive along the park’s north boundary. We met before sunrise at the park entrance. Heiser and Grieger took the backseat, I took the front, and soon we were bouncing west toward Pasture 10, where Grieger grazes his cattle. The road edged along a bluff so that you could see into the park, down bentonite caps that glistened like whale skin, to Squaw Creek, which meandered through a low, flat valley. Now and then, we came to a mess of rutted tracks—oil workers out for a joyride—and had to pick our way around. This proved challenging, since the prairie rose in steep, conical bluffs. To my companions’ dismay, these, too, had been clawed with tire tracks. Each man seemed equally bothered, though each expressed it in a different way: Heiser cursed “the bastards,” Frederick regarded them with fatherly disappointment, and Grieger said little at all.

We were looking for the truck—the one bombed on that September Sunday. Grieger, who wore cowboy boots, matching jeans and jacket, aviator sunglasses, and a groomed silver mustache, had been the first to discover the abandoned vehicle. He was out in the pasture, giving a photographer a tour. From the looks of it, someone had loaded the truck with trash and launched it off a 100-foot cliff. Then, some weeks later, he was haying over the bluff when the bomb went off. His son, riding with him, pointed to the smoke. Whoever it was had packed the truck with a whole lot of Tannerite—an explosive sold at local hardware stores—and shot it with a high-velocity rifle.

Grieger rarely encountered oilworkers in the pasture. Once, he came across two men with guns “out shooting rocks,” but normally, he found only the things they left behind: gates open, fence posts broken and burned in bonfires. When I asked about other nuisances, Grieger hesitated. “I don’t want to mention things,” he said,
“because it puts ideas in peoples’ heads. It hasn’t happened yet, but a guy does worry about his cattle.”

We came, again, to the edge of the bluff. Frederick stopped the car, and we descended on foot to a flat, grassy table. Trash was scattered about like it had been plundered from a shopping cart—laundry detergent, energy drinks, a jar of applesauce, window scrapers, WD-40, an assortment of sponges. In the middle of it all was the truck, though it didn’t look like one. Only when I walked closer did I recognize the seat springs and red carpet, and the aluminum wheel rims melted into puddles and streams. The men scrambled up another bluff and stared down at the wreckage. A thin, sultry haze hung to the north, where pump jacks and excavators prodded the earth. Heiser had not ceased talking all morning, but now he was quiet. “Jesus,” he finally said. “Blow a hole three feet deep in badlands gumbo, that’s no small feat.” Then his eyes caught on something else—a pair of bison at the edge of Squaw Creek.

Most people, when they talk about dying, say they hope to go painlessly in their sleep. Heiser would prefer to be killed by a bison and tells several stories of coming close. In the first—many years ago—he outran a bull on his horse, Calypso, which is harder, he claims, than one might think. Another time, he came across a bison drinking and decided to keep it company in a nearby tree. As he waited like a cat on a limb, the bull came to rub against the trunk, and Heiser could hardly keep himself from dropping onto its back. The third encounter, his closest, was at Hagen Spring, when some 50 bison descended toward him: “I jumped up that slope above the spring—and this is the honest to God truth, the neatest thing in my life—I sat down. I sat with my knees up like this, and a stampeding calf hit me with his fucking knee in my fucking nose. There were bison all around me. Then it was all quiet. But to have a bison kick you in the nose—that was just badass cool.”

In winter, a darkness settles over Heiser. He wakes at quarter to 5, lights the woodstove, and, for breakfast, eats oatmeal or Cream of Wheat. He might have coffee, but it is not essential. He feeds the cows, and then he walks above his ranch, where his two stillborn siblings are buried, to see the sun rise over the Killdeer Mountains. Now and then, he writes an account of these morning walks and sends it to a long list of friends and acquaintances. Years ago, these letters read like breathless entries in a survey notebook, broken by the odd rant or winking emoticon, or by the routine details that comprise a rancher’s life: “The blustery wind naturally kept all the usual wild ones tucked into the many sheltered places afforded by badlands canyons & draws, but I still had the good fortune to see 12 mule deer, 3 white-tailed deer, a porcupine, and the typical feathered ones … black-capped chickadees, common redpolls, Lapland longspurs, horned larks, and downy woodpeckers.” Always, Heiser noted the day’s temperature, and often he signed off, “So long, Buckaroos.”

Lately, though, the letters have been more infrequent, and when they do come, most words are spent on the boom. One, in late October, came after Heiser returned home to find flags marking the planned route of an industrial powerline across private pasture, 300 yards from his homestead. Originally, it was to cross his own land, to serve the growing towns to the north, but Heiser wouldn’t allow it. “It’s a good bet that this will run nearer to my place than anyone else’s in its 100 or so miles,” he wrote, “ — what I get for telling a large corporation to take their powerline straight to Hell with them.”

When I visited Heiser one last time before leaving North Dakota, he had been searching online for suitable property in Montana and Nevada. He talked of donating his place to the state park system, or to the Forest Service, which already manages much of the land that borders his own. We walked up the hill through his horse pasture and down a shallow draw to a creek. The morning was late and warm, and the animals in hiding, but Heiser summoned their ghosts, showing me where bucks came to rub felt from their antlers and where beavers had felled new timber. He told me it was not the newcomers who bothered him so much as it was their transience: They would come and go, and though their stay was short, their mark would last. That was the thing about humans, he said; our blundering mobility was deeply unfair. “If the animals can’t leave, then how the fuck can I? If I could build an ark and take them with me, I’d say, ‘Hey, let’s roll!’”


Sierra Crane-Murdoch is a contributing editor for High Country News and a visiting fellow in the Investigative Reporting Program at UC-Berkeley. She is at work on a book about the oil boom. Reprinted from High Country News (April 27, 2015), a biweekly magazine that reports on the West’s natural resources, public lands, and changing communities.