Sunday, September 20, 2009

Save the Badlands...or Not.

Yesterday's New York Times ran this piece from the Associated Press about a conflict between federal and local officials in North Dakota over a move to place 12,000 acres of the Badlands region on the National Register of Historic Places:
The federal Forest Service and National Park Service are pushing for the designation to highlight the significance of the region, where Roosevelt ran his cattle more than a century ago. But ranchers and state officials fear it would hinder development and say local residents were not consulted.
Love of open spaces and wild horses aside, this story was interesting to me because it encapsulated many of the conflicts and tensions we've explored in class: the balancing of federal and local interests, and the allure of the rural-American myth versus the economic realities of living in a rural area.

First, a little background. The Badlands are best known as as the rugged western lands of the Dakotas that conservationist and "rough and ready" President Theodore Roosevelt so loved to roam in his time. T.R. first visited the Badlands on a hunting trip in September 1883 and ended up investing in two ranches there: the Maltese Cross and the Elkhorn. He raised cattle on the Badlands and loved the area so much that he declared "I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota."

Today, the National Park Services manages both the Maltese Cross and Elkhorn ranchlands as part of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. As seen in the map below, the ranch lands are not contiguous:

Yesterday's story in the Times is about a proposal by the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service to register 12,000 acres of ranchlands purchased by the federal government two years ago as a National Historic Place. The land in question lies between the two national park sites and, according to the federal government, wouldn't really affect anything at the local level:

“Our view is that it’s benign,” said Dave Pieper, the supervisor for the ForestService’s Dakota Prairie Grasslands. “It’s just an acknowledgment.”

However, the proposal has raised the hackles of the state and local government:

Jim Arthaud, a Billings County commissioner countered, “If it’s just a title,
then why do we need it?” He added: “This is about locking the land up. So for
them to say it will not do anything is completely bogus. The people in this
county are nervous.”

The article reports a few facts that may shed some light on this federal-local conflict. The Forest Service purchased the Elkorn Ranchlands two years ago for $4.8 million dollars, but with $500,000 coming from the National Fish and Wildlife Federation (NFWF). According to the story, the Forest Service "promised to keep allowing grazing and other activities, including oil and gas development, on the land." However, in light of the fact that the Elkorn Ranchlands were purchased partially with funding from conservation groups, I can see why Commissioner Arthaud would be nervous about the registration proposal. For instance, the original press release from NFWF stated:

“The Elkhorn Ranch is the very birthplace of conservation in America where my
great-great grandfather conceived the idea of conserving our precious and finite
natural resources,” said Simon Roosevelt, a member of the Friends group’s
Advisory Council.

“The Elkhorn Ranchlands of the Dakota Prairie Grasslands is a haven for North
America’s majestic wildlife from healthy populations of elk, pronghorn, mountain
lions and deer to protected species, including the golden eagle,” said Jeff
Trandahl, executive director of NFWF. “The wildlife of these lands and the
diversity of the landscape inspired President Roosevelt’s conservation

Commissioner Arthaud continued:

Mr. Arthaud said the historic designation could prevent oil and gas development in the area and lessen the amount of land open for grazing. He said it could also hinder plans for a bridge over the Little Missouri River,which local residents say is central to travel.

Billings County officials want a crossing over the river to connect state
Highways 16 and 85 in the Badlands. It would cut as much as 100 miles off
commutes in the area, they say, as well as encourage economic development and
reduce the response times of fire trucks and ambulances.

I can sympathize with Commissioner Arthaud's concerns. Billings County is over 1100 square miles but has just 811 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, with 11.4% of the county living in poverty. While the median income of the county is higher than the state median at $44,819, the county's suffered an 8.7% reduction in population since 2000. Furthermore, Medora, the county seat, has a volunteer fire department of 17 volunteers, and counts the purchase of a new ambulance, in conjunction with Billings County, in 2002 as a major city achievement.

Oil and gas exploration in western North Dakota is seen by many as a huge opportunity for economic growth. Stories such as this one highlights the number of jobs and the dollar amounts an oil boom could bring to the area. And for a rural area with such little infrastructure, I can see how any federal movement towards preserving or acknowledging historic lands could be seen as "locking the land up" from future economic development.

But the federal government insists that the historic designation wouldn't change anything:

“It doesn’t pose any restrictions,” said Valerie Naylor, the superintendent of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in southwestern North Dakota. “It’s a nice recognition of its historical significance.”

Despite the federal government's assurances that the historial designation wouldn't really mean anything concrete, the fact that the U.S. Forest Service raised millions of dollars, in partnership with conservation groups, to purchase these lands in the first place raises an interesting point about the American-rural mythology. Wide expanses of western plains, gutsy Teddy Roosevelt, wild horses and cowboys - I can't deny that all of these things seem to invoke a uniquely American nostalgia for the western rural life. And with proposals such as the one highlighted in this story, the federal government seems to finds value in preserving these images and feelings as much as the physical places themselves.

I don't think it would be a stretch to say that the average American would also find this romantic vision of the American rural west as something appealing and something of value that should be preserved. But clearly, juxtaposed against the realities of what living in the Badlands today is like, this is a false - or at least, dated - image. So it begs the question: should national values that stress the importance of preserving our history or this rural ethos (false or not), trump concrete local needs? And further, does the preservation of our natural spaces - or the values that motivate such preservation - hurt or help the progress of modern rural America?

I wonder what Teddy would say.

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