THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK NORTH UNIT — Ron Sams remembers a time when very little of note happened here.
The U.S. law enforcement park ranger worked in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park from 1999 to 2001 before being transferred through the Department of the Interior.
He returned to the North Unit in 2008, just as the Bakken oil boom and all that came with it was beginning to dig into the northwest part of North Dakota.
“When I left here, I remember how quiet it was. When I came back, that was not the case any longer,” Sams said. “I’m not saying we’re as busy as Yosemite or some of the other parks I’ve worked in, but I’m seeing some of the same crimes here that I saw in other places. I should have expected it, because that’s what we’re supposed to do. But sleepy little Watford City, I think it surprised all of us.”
There are about 24,000 acres of beautiful Badlands serenity tucked between the circus of oil rigs and speeding semi trucks that barrel down deteriorating highways in what has become one of the busiest areas in North Dakota. The lone entrance to the North Unit is off hectic U.S. Highway 85, about 15 miles south of Watford City and 20 miles north of Grassy Butte.
Though never truly isolated, the North Unit was far enough off the beaten path that its visitor counts have never equaled that of the South Unit near Medora. Now it is surrounded by some of the busiest oil drilling areas in the state and has park officials dealing with issues they rarely encountered before the boom.
“With the increased traffic in the North Unit, we’ve had an increase in incidents,” Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor said.
She said incidents include visitors shooting at signs, more speeders and drivers under the influence on the park’s lone two-lane paved road that is populated not only by vehicles, but wildlife such as bison, bighorn sheep and deer.
Naylor said the North Unit has been able to keep up despite major issues such as increased traffic, noise and population, and oil rigs and wells — including the natural gas flares generated by them — that surround the park and can be seen from within its boundaries.
“I like that there are more people who are getting to know the North Unit and are enjoying it, for sure,” Naylor said. “I am concerned about things that might compromise its wilderness character.”
Oil-related trash is already having effects on the North Unit.
Greg Hoffman, district ranger for the North Unit, said a recent cleanup along Highway 85 turned up five fabric filter socks typically used to strain salt water and hydraulic fracturing water from oil wells and have been known to contain radioactive material.
“I have no idea how they got there, whether they flew off the truck or (someone) threw them out,” Hoffman said.
Inside the park, Sams said rangers have had to keep a close eye on campers as there are some oil field workers who live transient lifestyles.
Long-term camping is prohibited in the park, though Sams said prior to the oil boom, rangers rarely saw issues with visitors wanting to make extended camping stays. Now, he said, park officials have become more vigilant after dealing with abandoned or non-registered camper trailers and stolen vehicles.
At the same time, Naylor said the North Unit has become something of a peaceful retreat for established oil industry workers looking for tranquility amidst the boom.
“We’re pleased to welcome those folks to the park,” she said. “It shows that the park is very much needed during this time of increasing population.”
And what a time it is to see.
Late May and early June rainfalls have brought out the park’s beauty in a way that hasn’t been seen in years.
Wet years enhance the look of rock formations and tree-lined landscape while greening the increasingly lush grasslands and filling the Little Missouri River that snakes through the wilderness.
“The North Unit is really exceptional,” Naylor said. “It’s a great place to see the scenic views. It’s a wonderful place to get away and hike.”