Preserving Elkhorn Ranch

Elkhorn Ranch appeared in a segment on CBS Sunday morning today.  The significance of the site in the formulation of president Theodore Roosevelt’s views on resources and the environment and as the “Cradle of Conservation” was contrasted with the threat posed by oil development in the Bakken.


The segment also included mention of efforts to expand protection for Elkhorn Ranch. Additional information on efforts can be found at:

Looking Back on 2014

It was a whirlwind of activity this fall that kept me from posting regular updates.  The last half of 2014 included the following:

  • A third trip to the western part of the state in mid-October.  The focus this time was on the built environment (read as Oil Development) surrounding the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
  • The first exhibit of images from the Oil and Water project opened on 20 November at TMI Hospitality (4850 32nd Ave S, Fargo, North Dakota 58103).  The exhibit includes 11 color images from the exploratory trips.  The show runs through mid-March 2015.
  • Here is a short video on the exhibit:  
  • Participation in the final Community Supported Art event for 2014 (September), the FMVA Studio Crawl (early October), and the Holiday Sales event (November).

The prices for crude oil plummeted to less than $60/barrel late in the year.  This is having a chilling affect on the rate of oil development in western North Dakota.  Reports suggest that the boom may be over, or at least paused until prices rise again. It is sad that economics is the best means of slowing oil development, but I am glad that it has slowed nonetheless.

Lake Sakakawea


Lake Sakakawea is formed by the completion of Garrison Dam across the Missouri River in 1956.  The resulting reservoir is the third largest in the United States.

I only had time for a few stops along the northwestern end of the lake near Four Bears Bridge and New Town. Again, it was a terrible day for photography (too bright and too much haze), so I will need to visit the lake again on future trips.

Oil development is common along the edge of the lake, with some rigs drilling new wells right on the shore in some locations. This appears to put this important source of agricultural and drinking water at risk from oil and/or waste water spills.

Little Missouri State Park


This state park is located a few miles from Lake Sakakawea on the south rim of the badlands formed by the Little Missouri River. The park and surrounding leased land look noth and east across the rugged Little Missouri Breaks and include a network of hiking and horse trails that wander down into the badlands. Because it faces into the morning sun, the “canyon” formed by the river is not easy to photograph in the morning.  I hope to return in the late afternoon on a follow up trip.

There is significant oil development evident along ND 22 north of Killdeer to the park entrance.  Three rigs were drilling new wells in a one mile stretch of road just a short distance from the park entrance.  Rigs and wells were visible along the north rim of the Breaks, disrupting the panoramic views from within the park.




Multiple rigs along a small portion of ND highway 22.


Killdeer Mountain Battlefield

I stopped at a Coop in Killdeer a little before 7 AM on Monday morning to buy a drink and snacks. The parking lot was full of pickup trucks and semi trucks, all related to oil development. With the exception of the two ladies running the registers, I may have been the only one in the store that was not working in the oil fields. Like me everyone seemed to be looking for drinks and snacks for the day.


Killdeer Mountain Battlefield is the location of a significant battle in July 1864 between the Teton, Yanktonai, and Dakota (Sioux) Indians and US troops commanded by General Sully. US Troops were seeking reprisals following the Dakota Conflict of 1862 in Minnesota. Following the battle, the US Troops burned large numbers of native lodges at this important trading post. The actions of the US Troops cemented native antagonism against the encroaching whites and caused many natives to commit to continued warfare. See the North Dakota State Historical Society Killdeer Mountain Battlefield page for additional information.

The battlefield site, nestled at the base of the Killdeer Mountains, is located on private land. Please be mindful of any signs posted by the landowner so we can all continue to enjoy visiting in the future.


There are several oil wells a short distance to the east and south of the battlefield location, but none of these pump jacks were visible from the historic site.



Confluence of Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers


In the past, these rivers were important highways traversing the west.  The Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery Expedition passed this location on their way west in April 1805.  There is a museum run by North Dakota Historical Society that is worth a visit if you are in the vicinity.

The confluence of these two large rivers is not easy to photograph from the ground, at least not in a manner that makes it interesting.  This was made more difficult by the  smoke haze that plagued this trip.

The confluence is not far from Williston, often considered the epicenter of the Bakken oil development.  Nearby major highways are heavy with oil field truck traffic and there are a number of oil wells in the area (based on GIS map data).

Elkhorn Ranch


Elkhorn Ranch is the site of Theodore Roosevelt’s second ranch in North Dakota. It is the place he came to for solitude and some hard work while he mourned the loss of both his wife and his mother on a single day. It was also where he developed his conservation ethic that lead to the protection of more than 230 million acres.

The 218 acre site is the least visited unit in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. There are several interpretive signs near the parking area and at the ranch site (an easy 3/4 mile hike from the parking area). Building sites are fenced and the locations of many of the structures are marked with metal posts.


Even today, Elkhorn Ranch is fairly remote. The ranch is roughly a 50 mile drive from Medora; about 28 miles are on unpaved roads. But these back roads are not as quiet as they were only a few years ago. A number of oil wells are located along the roads heading towards Elkhorn Ranch, and semi trucks regularly head both north and south from the freshwater station near the junction of Westerheim Road and Bell Lake Road about half way between Medora and the ranch.  (Use caution when driving or when getting out of the vehicle for a photograph.  The roads are fairly narrow and these trucks are moving fast.)


There are oil fields in nearly every direction from the Elkhorn Ranch Site.  An active pump jack is visible on the bluffs on the opposite side of Little Missouri River from the site of Teddy’s cabin. I wonder what Roosevelt would have thought about this “progress” in his beloved wilderness? Perhaps this quote by him is still relevant:

“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”

Wells - Elkhorn Ranch

Oil Wells near Elkhorn Ranch 

Elkhorn Ranch is indicated by the small yellow oval near the middle of the map.  The legend for wells can be found at:  GIS Map Legend.

West Twin Butte


This small butte is located on private land just a few miles north of Camel’s Hump Butte. The neighboring East Twin Butte is not included in the list of special places, but is protected by being within the backcounty recreation area that starts about two miles east of West Twin Butte.  There is active oil development to the southwest of West Twin Butte in the Camel Hump field.


Second Trip

This past weekend I made a second trip to the Bakken oil fields. This trip included locations north of interstate 94 and traversed many regions of the state with the most intensive oil development: Williston, Watford City, and the Ft. Berthold Reservation near New Town.

I left Bismarck very early on Saturday morning, reaching the Painted Canyon Overlook shortly after sunrise. Well, it was shortly after the time when the sun was scheduled to rise, but the canyon was enveloped in a thick haze due to large wild fires raging further west, primarily in Washington State. The rest of the day was not very productive photographically. I took a few close-range shots of landscape features, but large, panoramic vistas were not appealing. The haze, the heat (92 degrees F by mid-afternoon), and the depressing nature of the oil development around Williston and Watford City made me decide to return to Bismarck rather than camp out.

I stayed indoors and out of the heat on Sunday, heading back out early on Monday morning to visit locations on ND 22 between Dickinson and New Town. Haze was still an issue, but the temperatures were significantly cooler than Saturday and Sunday. This trip was not as productive as the first, at least in terms of number of images.

Areas of Special Interest included in this trip:

  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park (South Unit)
  • Little Missouri River
  • Little Missouri National Grasslands
  • West Twin Butte
  • Elkhorn Ranch (Theodore Roosevelt National Park)
  • Confluence of Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers
  • Killdeer Mountain Battlefield
  • Little Missouri State Park
  • Lake Sakakawea

Separate posts for each of the locations including a few notes and photographs will follow over the next several days.