Written by Petra Marar, Assistant Editor
Preservation is as much about anticipating the future as it is about constructing the past. When commenting on the recent oil and gas development in North Dakota’s Williston Basin, Theodore Roosevelt scholar Clay Jenkinson explains that the Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s three separate units “will literally be surrounded by a level of industrialism that nobody could have predicted.” This punctuates an enduring perspective of the Great Plains region as articulated in 1965 by cultural landscape writer J.B. Jackson:
Not that [the Great Plains] appears destined to undergo a population boom; quite the contrary. The Great Plains region is in fact growing at the slowest rate in the nation…as a result of this, a great number of once flourishing farm villages in Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas and northwestern Texas and Oklahoma are slowly but surely dying, to become latter day ghost towns, remote from the larger highways and all but unvisited.
Measures of Bakken Formation producing wells, population growth (the fastest in the nation), and unemployment rate (the lowest in the nation) indicate extraordinarily rapid growth in North Dakota that would have disturbed Jackson’s certain vision of ghost towns.
As a result, laws perceived as adequate in 1990, when the NPS published the park’s Land Protection Plan, now threaten the distillation of Theodore Roosevelt’s silent badlands and grasslands for public consumption and wilderness protection. The 2013 Visitor Guide to the National Park Sites of North Dakota notes that the “2,000 trucking events,” drill rig, well pad, debris pit, flare pit, storage tank, and access road, needed to prepare any given site for drilling, dwarfs the park’s three units that comprise less than 1% of the Bakken play’s surface area. Temporary settlements persist, regional highways expand, and the coordinated rail, truck and pipeline conduits strive to keep pace with oil production predictions. In the midst of the boom, development patterns emerge from continental-scale logistics; as pipelines are constructed, fewer trucks are needed.
Given that tensions between oil and gas development and Theodore Roosevelt National Park have only increased, the NPS may need to reconsider methods for protecting wilderness. This park has inherited the challenge and capacity to demonstrate the malleability of aesthetic, economic and political perceptions of wilderness in American history. The Ordinance of 1785, influenced by Thomas Jefferson’s distaste for wilderness, imposed a checkerboard of public and private ownership over large portions of America. Between the 1930’s and 1970’s, a series of National Park Service legislative boundaries superimposed regulations over this checkerboard, influenced by Theodore Roosevelt and Frederick Jackson Turner’s valorization of wilderness protection. The 1990 Land Protection Plan furthered conservation practices to balance the Park’s historic preservation efforts and to negotiate between the various entangled public and private agents in the region.
The Park’s management of approximately 30,000 acres of wilderness today, informed by the Land Protection Plan, should be informed by these historical definitions of wilderness, regional pre-colonial land management practices, and today’s economic and cultural reality. Is the National Park Service, in cooperation with private companies, other government agencies, and citizens, able to adjust the cultivation of wilderness, both within and adjacent to the park, to engage current and predicted development patterns? Will a time come when access roads, abandoned, can provide corridors of valued vegetation communities, or otherwise be repurposed through road management practices?
This proximity between the public and oil and gas infrastructure, which can be fatally dangerous, provides an extreme opportunity to study, reconsider and alter land management practices that mediate between public and heavy industrial spaces. Dr. Peter Galison of Harvard University’s Department of the History of Science recently presented a lecture at Cornell University entitled “Wastelands and Wilderness: Nuclear Lands,” and discussed his pursuit to understand American wilderness today, which has been identified as a natural site for nuclear waste. Galison emphasized the challenge to identify a form of communication that marks the site’s entirety with “do not dig or drill before A.D. 12,000” — and legally endure 10,000 years. Architect Michael Brill envisioned numerous solutions to publicly mark the nexus of wilderness and this contentious element of American identity.
At the risk of being too opportunistic in regards to such dangerous situations, unique, positive conditions, too, have emerged from this juxtaposition: South Carolina’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory and Savannah River (Nuclear) Site, home to radioactive alligators and turtles, is also one of South Carolina’s most biodiverse areas. Logistical, economic, aesthetic and ecological frameworks all contribute to land use practices that apply to the case of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, as well. Interdisciplinary frameworks, design speculation, and revisiting planning tools such as zoning, cooperative agreements and easements, should guide amendments to the Land Protection Plan and future strategies in the ongoing material and philosophical construction of wilderness.