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Bryan Horwath, Forum News Service, Published March 19 2013

Drilling permit request near Elkhorn Ranch called 'test of our character'

DICKINSON, N.D. — The sights and sounds of industrial oil drilling could soon be just steps away from one of North Dakota’s most treasured historic landmarks.

XTO Energy, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil Corp., has staked out an area that is as close as 100 feet from a fence separating U.S. Forest Service land from the 218-acre Elkhorn Ranch site in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, park officials said Monday.

An application to develop two sections of land and “not more than four well sites” near the ranch site where Theodore Roosevelt once lived was received by the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources Oil and Gas Division on Feb. 22. Case No. 19996 is scheduled to go before the division and director Lynn Helms on March 28.

“The stakes put in to delineate an access path to one of the proposed well pads are about 100 feet west of the existing parking lot to the Elkhorn Ranch,” said Chad Sexton, a Geographical Information Systems analyst who works for the national park and visited the site Saturday. “The area is a big sagebrush flat within the same floodplain of the Elkhorn Ranch. Basically, the site is right adjacent to the ranch site. If you build an energy development and have all the structures that would be vertical, that would all be very visible from the Elkhorn Ranch.”

Park attorneys have been in contact with state legal representatives and it is possible the park could fight the proposed development site, said state Department of Mineral Resources spokesperson Alison Ritter. If there is opposition to the XTO pad sites, the matter would automatically move to the state’s Industrial Commission for final approval.

The Elkhorn Ranch was created by and became a refuge of sorts for Roosevelt.

Following a string of personal losses — including the deaths of his wife and mother on the same day — Roosevelt settled at the ranch site in 1884, staying at the compound off and on for several years before eventually becoming one of the most beloved and well-known presidents in U.S. history.

In his writings, Roosevelt remembered his time at the Elkhorn Ranch warmly, referring to the site as his “home” and even going so far as to write that he wouldn’t have become president if it weren’t for his time in the North Dakota Badlands.

“The Elkhorn Ranch is one of the most important places not only in North Dakota, but in America,” said Clay Jenkinson, a Dickinson native and Theodore Roosevelt historian and author. “I see this as a real test of our character as a state and as a people. This is a shrine to one of the Rushmore four and someone who is widely considered one of the top five presidents in U.S. history. This is where Theodore Roosevelt became Theodore Roosevelt and if ever there was a sacred place in North Dakota, this would be it.”

The ranch is nestled along the banks of the Little Missouri River and surrounded by a hodgepodge of national park, state park and U.S. Forest Service land.

The total XTO development encompasses nearly 1,300 acres of Forest Service land approximately 35 miles north of Medora.

A representative of the Forest Service on Monday deferred questions to spokesperson Babete Anderson, who did not immediately return messages.

“We are currently working with the U.S. Forest Service to identify an appropriate site and have reviewed more than one option with them,” XTO spokesperson Emily Snooks said in a statement. “Our priority is, and will remain, to ensure the safety of the community, our employees and contract personnel, and to protect the environment.”

Saying it would be a mistake to blame energy companies for attempting to develop sites that have not been placed off limits, Jenkinson said the area immediately surrounding the Elkhorn Ranch should have already been placed on a no-drill list.

“We can’t say ‘how dare you’ to the oil company now,” Jenkinson said. “They’re doing what carbon extraction industries do. They can’t know what we value, only we can tell them what we as North Dakotans value. If we choose not to spare this, it means we choose, as a people, to not spare anything. I can’t think of one single thing that could be put forward by anyone as more worthy of being spared than Roosevelt’s North Dakota home — this is our one big national place of presidential prestige.”

Two existing oil wells already can be seen from the Elkhorn Ranch site. According to national park officials, they lobbied successfully to camouflage one so that it is barely visible from the ranch site.

Once home to several buildings — including the small home that was constructed out of cottonwood trees — the ranch site now is home only to the foundation of Roosevelt’s former dwelling.

During the fall of 2012, the Elkhorn Ranch and Greater Elkhorn Ranchlands — a total of over 4,400 acres — were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“We are very concerned about any potential oil drilling in the immediate vicinity of the Elkhorn Ranch, which is culturally the most important part of the park,” Theodore Roosevelt National Park spokesperson Eileen Andes said. “This would be catastrophic for the Elkhorn Ranch. Roosevelt went to the ranch for solitude and healing and the site still offers that same solitude today. It’s pretty much the same place from when he was there.”