Terry Tempest Williams’s new book, The Hour of Land, takes her across the country to national parks. Through a variety of forms, she explores the relationship between people and their parks, and complicates the parks’ status as “America’s best idea.”
In the following excerpt, she visits Theodore Roosevelt National Park with her octogenarian father and tours the edges of the park, where oil fields are beginning to encroach.
Theodore Roosevelt would have liked Valerie Naylor, the superintendent of his park.
She is formidable upon first appearance in full uniform and it is hard not to be intimidated. But her side smile gives her away. Already she is teasing my father, calling him John and offering him condolences for having me as a daughter. He is smitten. He offers to drive, she says she will, and there is no further discussion. Valerie’s young cousin Cody also joins us. He is visiting from California, a high school student who has a dream of working in the oil fields north of here.
• • •
We will spend the day with Valerie in her park, the park that has been her home for the past eleven years. She received her master’s degree in biology from the University of North Dakota and did her research here from 1981 to 1984, focusing on the woody draws and how small mammals like deer mice utilize them. She did comparative studies between areas grazed and ungrazed by cattle.
“I became a naturalist for Theodore Roosevelt National Park during the summers,” Valerie said. “I realized I wanted to go into the National Park Service to share my love of this place with the people who visited it. This is my home park. It’s where I started and where I will end.”
As we drove into the park, the woody draws became evident, small oases of trees among the grasslands.
“What kinds of vegetation are we looking at?” I asked.
“It’s a mixed-grass prairie with green ash, and junipers, and, of course, cottonwoods.”
I see birds everywhere and hold myself back from asking whether we can stop. I guess blue-gray gnatcatchers and rufous-sided towhees. And meadowlarks are everywhere we look, especially scattered through the prairie dog towns.
“Lots of prairie dogs, Terry,” Valerie says, knowing my affection for these communal rodents most people in the American West call varmints. My father has shot hundreds, maybe thousands, in his day.
“Do you love them, too, John?”
“Never mind,” my father says. “Let’s just keep moving.”
Theodore Roosevelt National Park has large prairie dog towns that support a community of grasslands species: coyotes, foxes, burrowing owls, rattlesnakes, pronghorn, cottontails, and killdeer among them. At almost all hours of the day, red-tailed hawks and harriers can be seen floating above them with the corresponding alert calls coming from the prairie dogs.
If I had it my way, I would just sit myself among them and watch their endlessly fascinating behavior. These are black-tailed prairie dogs, not the Utah prairie dogs I studied at Bryce Canyon National Park. The black-tailed prairie dogs are much larger and more abundant than Utah prairie dogs. Historical accounts of black-tailed prairie dogs inhabiting the American grasslands at the time of Lewis and Clark report hundreds of millions of these communal animals with their towns stretching for miles across the prairie. Imagine the chatter of chirps, cries, and whistles carried by the wind that we now know from the scientists who study them to be heightened conversations with specific vocabularies and grammar on par with the language of dolphins. Prairie dog towns followed the bison herds, aerating the soil after their stampeding hooves. As the prairie dogs dig new burrows within their towns, providing endless tunnels and openings where spiders and snakes may take up residency, they loosen the tamped soils and in the process create a community for more than 243 other species of plants and animals, including predators that prey on prairie dogs such as badgers; hence, they are seen as a “keystone species,” an indicator of a healthy ecosystem.
“May we just stop for just a minute or two to hear their voices?” I say to my father. I can’t help myself, I am in love with these maligned creatures called “pop-guts” by my family, who have shot them for target practice.
“Here we go,” Dad says.
Valerie pulls over and I step on the dry, golden grasses and lift my binoculars.
“There you are,” I say. For as far as my binoculars can span the horizon, prairie dogs, in all age groups: males, females, juveniles, and babies feeding, nursing, wrestling, kissing, chirping, popping up and then abruptly disappearing into their burrows, only to pop up again in an adjacent burrow.
I focus on one clay-covered prairie dog with a black tip on its tail. He stands up on his hind legs and wails, then drops down and scurries across the grasses. Stands up again with more hearty chirps and is joined by several others. They appear as the size of small children, so much larger and stockier than our Utah prairie dogs.
“Terry exaggerates,” my father says through the window that he has rolled down. Dad stays in the backseat of the truck as Valerie and I talk prairie dog. Cody also stays in the truck.
“None of us trust her.”
“Our prairie dogs are pretty big, John.”
I have an ally. Valerie and I met a decade ago when I visited Teddy Roo- sevelt Park as a guest of Dickinson State University, thirty miles east. At the time, Dickinson was a small town; now it has mushroomed with the energy boom from a population of fifteen thousand to fifty thousand.
The last time I was here, Valerie and I watched a pair of courting great horned owls in the campground by the river. We hooted back and forth in the cottonwoods at dusk until we were staring into their yellow-citrine eyes inches away. I made a vow to come back with my father, bringing back gifts of maps and guidebooks to entice a visit.
A wall of bison stand in the background, maybe a hundred or more, bulls, cows, and red calves, all swishing their tails in the midmorning heat. The wholeness of this scene asks us to imagine a large part of the American landscape stretching from Texas up to the Dakotas, looking just like this view before us.
“Let’s get going!” Dad says.
Back in the truck, I turn around and say, “We’re here.”
Valerie is taking us up to the North Unit, which means we have to drive through the South Unit and then on Highway 85, the main route between the two units of the park.
“This is a dangerous road,” Valerie says. “It’s the thoroughfare from Dickinson up to Watford to Williston, known as the gateway to the Bakken oil fields. Look at any North Dakota paper and read the obituaries, many are killed by car accidents. These big fracking trucks and oil carriers just barrel along, no pun intended,” she says.
“It’s energy development twenty-four seven up here. The Bakken has changed everything. Most of my job now is figuring out which oil and gas leases are going to affect the park and then meeting with the energy companies to convince them to drill somewhere else.” She pauses. “Honestly, there’s not enough hours in the day.”
She goes on to say, “North Dakota’s population was six hundred and fifty thousand before the boom, now it’s over seven hundred and fifty thousand and rising. The towns of Watford City and Williston, once modest communities, are booming, with rents skyrocketing, and it’s almost impossible to find a place to live. Tens of thousands of workers have descended on these towns. The locals hardly recognize the place. All hands are on deck from the governor to the state legislature, with businesses and communities now in the service of oil and gas development.”
“I really want to see what’s going on up there,” my father says. “I know the energy boom in Wyoming and was part of it, but I’ve never been up here before.”
“It’s half an hour away,” Valerie says. “We can head up there later, if you want to check it out. I know you’re in the business, John. I think you’ll find it fairly shocking. It’s out of control and it’s affecting everything.”
I am listening in the backseat. Bands of pastel clays construct these badlands eroded by wind and water: white clay, gray clay, taupe. Valerie explains how North Dakota’s badlands differ from South Dakota’s badlands in one significant way: vegetation. And this has been the great surprise of Theodore Roosevelt National Park: it’s green. The juniper forests that dot the erosional landscape appear soft and lush, a bit misleading because it’s clear how wild the country really is—hard walking, little water, and a lot of wind. Whole patches of yellow sweet clover dot the landscape beneath a blue sky with herds of white cumulus clouds resembling white buffalo.
Valerie is quiet, focusing on the road. Dad and I are looking out the windows at the moving scenery. The green of the juniper becomes a mosaic with the bright yellow patches of what we learn are fields of canola oil, known as rapeseed oil. Lots of pumps not only mark the boundaries of the fields but animate them, looking like massive black crows lifting and lowering their hammer heads.
“This used to be such a leisurely drive. You could read a book as you drove, rarely even seeing another car between the two units. Now both hands better be on the wheel.”
“Where were you before you became superintendent here?” Dad asks. “Scotts Bluff. From 1999 to 2003, I was superintendent there. And before that I was at Big Bend as chief of interpretation from 1994 to 1999.” “And what changes have you seen since you started here?”
“Well, the Bakken has changed everything. My work as superintendent used to be focused on the elk herds, the bison, shoring up the crumbling bentonite hills—this park is constantly in motion.” She pauses. “But now my primary job is to mitigate the drilling on the boundaries of the park, and that is more than a full-time job.”
She hands a map of the park back to Dad. He unfolds it on his lap. “What’s this National Grasslands area that borders the park?”
“It’s a multiple-use area that still protects the ecosystem, but now it’s largely being leased by the oil companies. It’s being cut to pieces by energy development and it’s having an impact on the park with new roads and oil pads sprouting up like corn. We’ll drive out there tomorrow so you can see what’s happening.
“It’s like the California Gold Rush—there’s no real process, no organization. It’s a free-for-all, random and chaotic, and everyone wants to make a quick million and get out. And with the oil comes all the social ills associated with it: violence, prostitution, drugs—you name it, we’ve got it.”
“Are you seeing any of this entering the park?” I ask.
“Not really, but every once in a while something strange happens, like not too long ago, a bison was shot on the side of the hill by the road. It wasn’t somebody poaching a bison for food. Probably some roughnecks came into the park on the weekend, got drunk, and shot it for the hell of it.
“I don’t know,” Valerie says, “it’s not the same. You just don’t feel safe in the way you used to. I never thought twice about safety. Now I do.”
“I understand what you’re saying,” Dad says. “During the Wyoming boom, I always kept a pistol under my seat. Always. We’d be working in Rock Springs or Rawlins and you’d be out walking the country to see where the pipe would go so you could make your bid, and guys sleeping in the sagebrush would leap up and say, ‘Please hire me!’ Hell, you didn’t know who you’d run into.
“I mean in the seventies, in Evanston, Wyoming, you’d go into a bar off I-80, and there was a ‘coat room’ where it was understood that you’d leave your guns and knives and brass knuckles behind so everybody could dance or drink. It was crazy. But I have to say the oil companies did a lot of good in the town. They built recreational centers, swimming pools, and libraries. I mean, the towns benefited.
“What I can’t reconcile here in North Dakota,” my father says, “is this country up here is too pretty to be an oil field. Most of the oil fields I’ve been to have been the dredges like Baggs, Wyoming, or Big Piney—windswept land that’s all but empty. But here it’s so green, with these gentle rolling hills.”
“I hear ya, John,” Valerie says, “but like I said, I am on border control every day of every week, trying to stop the rigs from going up in our view shed. I’ve completely given up on our governor and the legislature. They’re very tight with the energy companies. So, I’ve got some folks who alert me when there is a proposal for a new oil development, and then, I go directly to the CEOs of the company and ask if they will meet with me. I’ve had my best luck working directly with the oil companies because our state regs are so poor. I’ve learned over time, this is the most effective strategy.”
She focuses on the road and many miles of silence pass. “But I’ll tell you, honestly, it’s relentless and depressing and I’m tired.”
Terry Tempest Williams is the award-winning author of fourteen books, including Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, and When Women Were Birds. Her work has been widely anthologized around the world. She divides her time between Castle Valley, Utah, and Moose, Wyoming.