The Making of a Conservation President—Land&People

To the untrained eye, the Badlands of western North Dakota look like an uninhabitable place–a jumble of jagged, eroded buttes, pinnacles, and spires. But peer inside the nooks and crannies of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, in the heart of the Badlands, and you may see a wide variety of wildlife, with many animals easily viewed from the road. Bison graze outside the visitor center at the Painted Canyon Overlook. Antelope, wild horses, bighorn sheep, elk, and deer all are seen here frequently.

The 70,447-acre park, established in 1978, offers a rare opportunity to see black-tailed prairie dog “towns” thriving in large meadows. As park naturalist Bruce Kaye and I stop by the road to identify several wild horses, we watch a coyote stalking prairie dogs. “It’s a wildlife-friendly park,” Kaye observes. “A lot of people tell us they see more wildlife here than they did in Yellowstone.”

The park consists of two units–a North Unit and a South Unit–each straddling the Little Missouri River about 50 miles apart. Between the two units, privately owned cattle ranches dot the landscape and sit astride the Little Missouri grasslands, managed by theU.S. Forest Service, where cows graze and oil and gas wells bob up and down amid towering bluffs.

It is here, on the west side of the Little Missouri, that the National Park Service holds a significant piece of American history–the Elkhorn Ranch, where America’s 26th president, Teddy Roosevelt, lived from 1885 to 1886. Across the river, within view of TR’s former front porch, is the 5,100-acre Eberts Ranch–a large, unprotected jewel the Park Service hopes will soon be added to the public domain.

Ranchers and Stewards

On a windy afternoon in early June, the Eberts family fans out on top of a narrow knob, shaped like a camel’s back, about 1,000 feet above their place. A tall crop of green grass, decorated by buttercup-shaped purple flax wildflowers, bows in the breeze. Like so many other aging ranching families in the West, the Eberts want to retire but don’t want their land turned into a cluster of ranchettes.

“We were so thrilled to find a place like this,” says Norma Eberts, who with her husband, Ken, and his two brothers, Allan and Dennis, has managed the ranch for 10 years.

“This is just excellent cattle country,” adds Ken Eberts. “You’ve got a good crop of grass, you’ve got shade, and you’ve got protection from bad weather. It has all the key components of a year-round cattle operation.”

The Eberts are farmers and ranchers, to be sure, but they have a deep reverence for the land and wildlife, and, like Teddy Roosevelt, a strong conservation ethic. As Ken Eberts explains the ranch operation, a mule deer doe and her spotted fawn walk out into a fingerlike pasture cradled between two clay bluffs.

“Watch for a second fawn to come out in the open,” Ken says. “Most of the deer around here have twins. The grass is that good.”

The Eberts are proud of the fact that they have successfully raised 450 head of Angus cattle on their ranch year in and year out, while conserving the soil, grass, and water for the benefit of wildlife and the environment. They offer hunting for trophy mule deer and white-tailed deer in the fall– but exclusively to bow-hunters. And they enjoy seeing bald eagles, golden eagles, other birds of prey, wild turkeys, bobcats, mountain lions, and songbirds all around the property.

“We’re grazing cattle and taking care of the grass and the land as best we can, just like Teddy Roosevelt used to do,” says Dennis Eberts. Roosevelt, who would become our nation’s greatest conservation president, established the Elkhorn Ranch in 1884 near Medora, North Dakota, directly across the Little Missouri River from the present-day site of the Eberts Ranch. At its peak, Elkhorn Ranch ran 4,500 head of cattle in the open range of the Badlands, on both sides of the river and to points more than 100 miles away.

In just four years, however, the young Roosevelt watched the Badlands change from an unspoiled paradise to a lifeless dust bowl–the result of overgrazing and severe drought. He saw hunters wipe out bison, bighorn sheep, grizzly bears, and elk, whose remnant populations retreated to the Rocky Mountains, hundreds of miles to the west. Roosevelt’s experience in the Badlands inspired an unshakable conservation ethic. He felt so profoundly about the importance of careful stewardship and preservation of open space that as president he created the national forest system, 18 national monuments, five national parks, and 51 wildlife refuges.

The Eberts have preserved the countryside in much the same condition as Roosevelt found it when he first came to Medora, 120 years ago. Two years ago the Eberts approached National Park Service officials about buying them out. The agency immediately saw promise in the concept, and began a formal study of the options for including the Eberts’ Ranch within the boundaries of the park. At the same time, local park officials reached out to the Trust for Public Land for assistance, should the acquisition go forward.

Purchase of the Eberts Ranch would contribute significantly to cultural, conservation, and wildlife education at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, says Bruce Kaye. “I think it has huge potential,” he says. “The public could come here and learn how the Badlands shaped the mind of our greatest conservation president. They could see the land as he saw it from foot and horseback. I think for many folks the whole experience would really strengthen their views about the importance of conservation.”

Neighboring rancher Cyndie Fugere also sees economic benefits of the proposed park expansion. “This has the potential to be a great tourist draw and bring jobs to our region,” she says.”It will extend people’s stay in the Badlands.”

The Making of a Conservationist

Theodore Roosevelt was just 25 when he first came to the Badlands to hunt bison in the fall of 1883. It took him 13 days to bag his first bison, a shocking revelation that the great herds were vanishing quickly. During the hunt, Roosevelt met several ranchers who encouraged him to invest in the open-range cattle business–a new enterprise that captured the fancy of many capitalists on the western frontier.

For a man possessing family wealth, a penchant for adventure, and a love for the outdoors, the notion had instant appeal. He plunked down hard cash and bought the Maltese Cross Ranch, south of Medora, along with horses and cattle. In the winter of 1884, Roosevelt returned to New York to reunite with his wife, Alice, and serve in the New York Legislature. But in a matter of months, Alice died soon after giving birth to their first child, Alice Lee. Tragically, Roosevelt’s mother died the same day.

Stricken with grief, Roosevelt headed back to the Badlands in the summer of 1884, hiring two trusted hunting guides from Maine, Bill Sewall and Will Dow, to establish a new ranch in a remote location. Sewall and Dow picked a spot 35 miles north of Medora that would become the Elkhorn Ranch. By frontier standards the ranch house was spacious, measuring 60 feet long, 30 feet wide, and nine feet high. The guides cut massive cottonwood logs from nearby groves along the river for the exterior and dug a basement, where Roosevelt operated a darkroom for his photography hobby. They also built a full-length porch that fronted the Little Missouri, where Roosevelt often sat reading and writing in a rocking chair, looking out across the river at the land that would come to belong to the Eberts.

Roosevelt not only enjoyed the solitude of the Badlands, he enjoyed living life as a true ranchman, participating in cattle drives, branding, and roundups. And he looked the part, in his broad-brimmed cowboy hat, buckskin shirt, leggings, and chaps. A silver belt buckle and spurs, alligator-skin boots, and a leather belt and holster for his Colt .45 completed the picture. He adored his horse, Manitou.

“The rapid motion of the fiery little horse combine to make a man’s blood thrill and leap with sheer buoyant lightheartedness and eager, exultant pleasure in the boldness and freedom of the life he is leading,” Roosevelt wrote.

Roosevelt was interested in all forms of wildlife. In between cattle drives, he’d go hunting for wild game in North Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. He drew pictures of songbirds and remarked on how their sounds and colors contrasted with those of birds he knew in New York.

By the summer of 1886, however, a severe drought had gripped the Great Plains and the Badlands. The dry spell made it abundantly clear that the Badlands had become overstocked with cattle. By then, some cattle companies grazed more than 20,000 head apiece–almost four times the size of Roosevelt’s herd. That summer many ranchers, including Roosevelt, tried to sell sizable portions of their herds, but the profit margin was poor because the market was overburdened. Then things got worse. A brutal winter in 1886-87 crippled many cattle operations; some ranchers suffered losses up to 90 percent. Sewall and Dow already had decided to leave North Dakota in the fall of 1886 because of the drought, having lost hope of better things to come.

Roosevelt, meanwhile, had decided to run for mayor of New York City, a contest he expected to lose and did. But he ended 1886 on a positive note, marrying his second wife, Edith Carow, and going on vacation to England. Although Roosevelt would return to the Badlands several times over the next five years, he liquidated his cattle interests and thereafter focused on politics in the East. Even though he had spent only four years in the Badlands, he often said, “I never would have been president if it had not been for my experience in North Dakota.”

Back at the Ranch

Today, visitors to Theodore Roosevelt National Park can visit the old Elkhorn Ranch site and look across the Little Missouri River bottomlands just as Roosevelt did in the 1880s. Large boulders that served as the ranch house’s foundation and a rock-lined water well are the only remaining signs of TR’s secluded abode. The chatter of songbirds and sounds of the river allow visitors to experience a timeless quiet and solitude.

Bruce Kaye recounts bringing Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris to the ranch site in 1991. It was the first time Morris, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for his book The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt had actually seen the site. “He sat down on a rock and wept,” Kaye recalls. Morris later wrote a letter to the Park Service urging the agency to do everything it could to preserve the lands around the Little Missouri, such as the Eberts Ranch. “To my mind, there is no memorial of marble or bronze anywhere in the country that evokes the conscience of Theodore Roosevelt as powerfully as the Elkhorn bottom and its surrounding hills,” he wrote.

“It is a crucible of calm, a refuge from the roar of worldly getting and spending.” Acquisition of the 5,000-plus-acre Eberts Ranch would allow the public to experience firsthand the expanse of land where Roosevelt rode the range and herded cattle, Kaye says. Furthermore, access to the old Elkhorn homesite is best gained by fording the river from the Eberts’ side. Budget permitting, the Park Service plans to place interpretive sites on both sides of the river.

Roosevelt’s descendants support the protection effort. “I really salute the Eberts family,” says great-grandson Teddy Roosevelt IV. “They want to preserve a piece of history that belongs to all Americans.” Two other great-grandsons, Mark Ames and Tweed Roosevelt, also favor the Eberts Ranch acquisition and have visited the park and the Elkhorn Ranch site. Ames is a member of the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes use of the park and sponsors live musical performances in a Badlands amphitheater.

TPL has been working with the Roosevelts and others to garner congressional approval for the protection of the Eberts Ranch. North Dakota’s senior Senator Kent Conrad says he supports protecting the ranch in a way that meets local needs and respects the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt. He believes that protecting the ranch would create a historical and ecological attraction that would be good for North Dakota and good for the tourist industry of the area. In the meantime, the ranch faces an unknown future. Sale to a developer could bring a subdivision right to the border of the existing park.

“It’s going to break our hearts to leave here,” says Norma Eberts, “but if the ranch goes to the Park Service, we know we can always come back and that they’ll always take care of the land.”

Stephen Stuebner is a freelance writer based in Boise, Idaho. His latest book is a biography, Cool North Wind: Morley Nelson’s Life with Birds of Prey (Caxton Press, 2002).