"I never would have been president," declared the nation's 26th commander-in-chief in 1910, "if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota."
And during those buffalo-hunting and cattle-ranching adventures in what was then the Dakota Territory, no place made as big an impression on Roosevelt as Elkhorn Ranch. Tucked along the banks of the sinuous Little Missouri River amid what he called the "grim, desolate beauty" of the Badlands, the isolated cabin served as a place of refuge and reflection for a man who would become the greatest conservationist president in American history.
Now part of the national park created in his memory, the weathered remnants of Roosevelt's "Walden Pond of the West" retain their sense of remoteness in the least populated region of one of the USA's least-visited states.
But on a ridge beyond the quivering cottonwoods and grasshoppers flitting through knee-high prairie grass, an oil well pierces the horizon. It's a symbol of the "carbon rush" that has earned North Dakota the country's lowest unemployment rate and ranked it second to Texas in oil production — and is rapidly transforming what the late CBS newsman and native son Eric Sevareid called the "rectangular blank spot in the nation's mind."
This summer, citing threats from nearby development in the Bakken, a 13,000-square-mile, oil-rich geological formation that spans much of western North Dakota, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Elkhorn Ranch one of the 11 most endangered historic places in America.
North Dakota's still-accelerating energy boom is "one of the best things that's ever happened to this state," says Bismarck-based humanities scholar Clay S. Jenkinson, author of For the Love of North Dakota.
Yet that economic juggernaut, he says, also is creating the "wholesale industrialization" of a subtle landscape often ignored by travelers passing through on Interstate 94 to such marquee destinations as Glacier or Yellowstone national parks.
The area's undulating prairies and furrowed, pockmarked buttes — formations frontier soldiers described as "hell with fires put out" — are an "acquired taste," Jenkinson allows. Many residents of the state's more populated Eastern half (also known as "Greater Minnesota") even dismiss the Western region as "Godforsakia," he jokingly adds.
Now, Jenkinson worries, the lyrical emptiness of "America's Outback" is under seige — and "no one is going to say, 'Gee, honey, let's vacation in the middle of an oil boom.' "
Big changes in small towns
On the other hand, it was the buzz surrounding the Bakken oil rush that persuaded Ryan and Bethany Buus to detour through northwestern North Dakota on their way from Rochester, Minn., to Montana this summer.
The couple's verdict?
Camping in a state park surrounded by oil fields "was … interesting," says Ryan, ordering a cup of coffee at Hidden Springs Java in the cowboy-themed tourist burg of Medora (pop. 100). "When we looked up and saw this bright flame on the horizon, we knew it was either a really big campfire, or a gas flare." (An estimated 30% of the natural gas produced in the Bakken is now burned off as waste .)
But, Ryan says, after coping with a steady stream of 18-wheelers along the scenic two-lane highway that links Medora to the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and hearing stories of $250-a-night motel rooms, "once was enough for us."