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.

| Winter 2015

  • Theodore Roosevelt National Parks
    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
  • Oil and Gas Wells

    Illustration by North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources
  • Danger Sign
    Most North Dakotans say they knew the boom had arrived when they went to the grocery store and no longer recognized a soul.
    Photo by Flickr/National Parks Conservation Association

  • Theodore Roosevelt National Parks
  • Oil and Gas Wells
  • Danger Sign

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.”

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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.

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