Winthrop Roosevelt on the Oil Boom that Threatens His Great-Great-Grandfather’s Legacy
North Dakota’s oil discovery has brought prosperity to the state. But Winthrop Roosevelt asks at what price.
My great-great-grandfather Theodore Roosevelt has the accurate reputation of being one of our country's greatest conservationists. Images of TR embracing the great American outdoors by roping cattle on his ranch, hunting buffalo on the plains, and standing next to the Grand Canyon are just as ubiquitous in American history as the images of him working behind his desk in the Oval Office. His love for the natural world became one of his crowning policy achievements as president. To put it in context, the U.S. Forest Service once calculated that he preserved 230 million acres of land, or 84,000 acres for each day he was president.
TR seems to have been drawn to the natural world almost from birth, but it took the Badlands of North Dakota where he lived from 1884 to 1886 to finalize his transformation from a sickly child born into urban wealth into a hardy individual with a lifelong passion for conservation. As he put it: “I have always said I would not have been president had it not been for my experience in North Dakota.”
In recognition of TR’s great work as a conservationist and his commitment to the natural world, Theodore Roosevelt National Park was created in 1978 in western North Dakota. The park preserves the natural splendors of the Dakota Badlands and is a testament to the Western spirit that instilled in TR a lifelong commitment to the great American outdoors. But, in a twist of bitter irony, the recent Bakken oil boom in North Dakota threatens to consume the integrity of a national park that has been referred to as the birthplace of the American conservation movement.
That is why I felt it was important to narrate a short documentary video produced by the Center for American Progress. In the video, we explore the ways in which Theodore Roosevelt National Park has already felt the impacts of nearby drilling in progress. The serious impacts of this drilling include disruptions from truck traffic on the road to the park, the sound of diesel-generated pumpjacks reverberating in the campgrounds, and the dozens of lights from drilling rigs and cell towers ruining the park’s deep night skies.
As the video shows, the situation is only going to get worse around the park as more and more wells are drilled. Unfortunately it appears that, once again, the short-term gains of special interests are coming at the expense of the long-term cultural and natural health of our country. Just last week, XTO Energy, a company based in Texas, announced that it was scrapping its proposal to drill only 100 feet from the historic site of TR’s Elkhorn Ranch. That a company would even consider such a plan is beyond my comprehension.
To be sure, the Bakken oil boom has brought jobs and wealth to North Dakota at a time when the state needs it the most. But the headlong rush to drill has caused a number of social and environmental consequences that are just too startling to ignore. To mention a few, cities and towns in this region have been stuck with the bills incurred from caring for temporary workers, housing shortages are rampant because the demand is so high, and North Dakota’s unique and fragile Badlands ecosystem is being irrevocably changed.
Of course, it doesn’t need to be this way. Slowing down and planning for the boom—even if the oil companies and state leaders are reluctant—is the only way to manage its impacts. As Clay Jenkinson, a prominent Roosevelt scholar interviewed in the video puts it: “When there’s that much oil, and that much profit, and that much employment, we as an enlightened people can afford to say, ‘but we don’t have to do all of it.’”
Our national parks were set aside to protect America’s natural, cultural, and historic resources for future generations. More than 400 national park units exist in the United States today, and they are visited by 275 million people every year.
Not being nearly as eloquent or elucidative as my great-great grandfather, I will leave the great man to speak for himself. He said: “Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.”
If you are outraged like I am that a national park could be sacrificed in the oil and gas industry’s quest for selfish profit, it’s time to take action. Call the White House, call your Congressmen and Senators, call your local elected officials and tell them that we must put energy development on equal ground with conservation and that our national parks and other lands belong to all Americans born and yet to come.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Theodore Roosevelt would have felt the same.