WATFORD CITY The two units of North Dakota's national park have experienced an unusual summer. Even in a land where the unusual creates the foundation for its appeal, this year has been markedly different.
The two units of North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park have been pelted by much more rainfall than usual this summer. Both units saw extensive flooding that far exceeded the amount of water generally expected and overflowed into the record books. At Medora, the Little Missouri's rise ranked second all-time.
Regular rain measurements are taken at both units of the park. The numbers show that the region is in the third year of a wetter-than-usual wet cycle. By the end of July 2011 the North Unit had received 23.25 inches of rain more than 8 inches over the long-term norm. Similar numbers were posted for all of 2010 and 2009.
Kim Fundingsland/MDN - - A bison grazes near a roadway in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park North Unit. In the background is considerable traffic on U.S. Highway 85, generated by oil activity in the area.
The South Unit has received somewhat less rainfall this year but remains above average. At the end of July 2011, the South Unit total was 16.75 inches. The 2010 total was 19.42. The last "normal" rainfall year in the South Unit occurred in 2008, when 14.12 inches of rain was received.
Dickinson, an official weather reporting site in close proximity to the park's South Unit, has also received more than 16 inches of rain this year. That is more than 5-1/2 inches above the long-term norm and more than 6 inches over what was received in 2010. Similar numbers have been recorded at Williston, not far from the North Unit. Williston's rainfall total to date is 16 inches, also 5-1/2 inches more than usual.
Wilderness Act of 1964
"A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."
High water from the usually docile Little Missouri River ripped through both units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in late May. The "Little Mo" can be counted upon to rise rapidly in the spring, much to the delight of canoeing enthusiasts, but not to the extent it did this year. This year Little Mo left an unwanted calling card in the form of layers of Badlands clay and mud wherever it surged out of its riverbanks.
"It was pretty amazing to see a river as small as the Little Missouri get just huge," said Eileen Andes, Theodore Roosevelt National Park chief of interpretation in Medora. "It's normally kind of a small river that gets down to a trickle in the summer."
Particularly hard hit was the normally scenic and serene Juniper Campground in the park's North Unit. Several campsites there remain closed, sealed off by yellow tape until an extensive clean-up can be completed. Some of the campground's heavy picnic tables were overturned or otherwise moved by floodwaters. Several of them remain buried in several inches of hardened mud. The South Unit's Cottonwood Campground, also hit hard by floodwaters, has since been cleaned up. With the exception of some areas of dried mud, little evidence of flooding remains.
As extensive as the onslaught of water was this past May, campers are still utilizing the park. On a single day-trip this past week vehicle license plates in the park included some from New York, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Idaho, Utah, Manitoba and Texas, with visitors coming to see one of the least visited, least publicized national parks in all of the United States.
There are 50 pull-through or back-in campsites at the Juniper Campground and a primitive area set aside for those tenters wishing to get a bit farther away from the campground proper. Not all of the sites were flooded, at least not to the point where some could not be returned to use with a minimal amount of work. Those sites, 31 of them, are being utilized today.
Despite the remnants of soil deposited by floodwaters earlier this year, the park's North Unit has lost little of its luster. That's the way it is in the Badlands where the landscape has been undergoing changes for thousands of years, demonstrating a resilience worthy of national park status. Flooding and the slumping of clay buttes will continue to happen. So will the re-emergence of vegetation that will hide some of the scars, particularly those created by flooding in a portion of the lowlands.
Entrance fees to the North Unit have been waived this summer because of the closure of a portion of the park's roadway. Major slumping has occurred along the switchback that leads from Cedar Canyon to the plateau above.
"The North Unit is closed at that point, which is six miles from the entrance," explained Andes. "The road is slumping and not safe to drive on. There's been a lot of moisture this year. That, and the geology of the Badlands, made it fairly easy to erode the geologic layers underneath."
Compounding the problem of the slumping roadway is the fact that the area has not yet settled.
"It is still moving. It hasn't stopped," Andes said.
The Federal Highway Adminstration has made a preliminary inspection of the roadway. Construction is not expected to begin until next spring at the earliest.
Oasis among energy development
The value of Theodore Roosevelt's North Unit has perhaps never been more evident. It has become an oasis among the vast oil development that has grown immensely in western North Dakota in recent years.
As oil field trucks constantly stream past on the highway leading to the entrance of the park, the importance of the park becomes more and more apparent. Within a mere half-mile inside the entrance lies several thousand acres of wilderness, tucked away from the hustle and bustle of energy development.
The North Unit, some 24,000 acres, is about half the size of the South Unit. However, the North Unit boasts more than 19,000 acres designated as "wilderness," almost twice as much as the South Unit. A wilderness designation means man can visit but not alter the land. Motorized or mechanical vehicles are not permitted.
At the North Unit, a visitor can point a camera in virtually any direction, from any location, and capture the essence of magnificent scenery clearly demonstrating the meaning of wilderness. The park features an unrivaled mixture of juniper, cedar, towering cottonwoods and an endless variety of grasses and plants. It supports both mule deer and white-tailed deer, buffalo, a wide variety of smaller mammals, birds, amphibians and lowly insects. The turkey feeds on berries below while the turkey vulture circles high overhead.
While a combination of white clouds and dark storm clouds float through blue skies high over Badland's buttes, decorated in a myriad of subtle colors, streams below run with water tainted by the colors of the landscape. The beaver and the butterfly share the day. A flicker feeding in the short grass is alerted by a mule deer bounding past. That's the way it is in the wilderness acreage of the North Unit.
The gentle wind carries with it the pleasing scents of juniper and cedar and sage. The Badlands experience is a feeling under your feet mixed with the comforting sound of cottonwood leaves filtering the wind. It is nature as it has been for hundreds of years, and not what man wishes it to be. It is different in so many ways that descriptions are woefully inadequate.
"There is peace and quiet and solitude to enjoy. The North Unit is an excellent place to experience that," Andes said. "It's definitely not crowded and a good place to visit for people who love a little privacy."
For many, a visit to Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a cure for the stresses of the day. Even if only experienced briefly, the value of North Dakota's only national park becomes readily apparent.
"It is one of the most beautiful places in North Dakota with great wildlife viewing, great camping and hiking," Andes said. "The campground is a beautiful setting and there's plenty of room for country camping in the wilderness. You'll see the wildlife, the beautiful hues and enjoy great photographic opportunities. If you like stargazing, we have really nice, clear, dark nights."