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Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park


The death of Theodore Roosevelt in 1919 sparked an immediate interest in a memorial honoring his time spent in North Dakota. Over the next few years a site at the Little Missouri Badlands was selected by a group of entrepreneurs interested in building tourism in the state. But the proposal lay dormant as the project had little support from local ranchers who feared losing grazing acreage. But by the 1930’s overgrazing, drought and the Great Depression forced many ranchers to abandon their homesteads or sell for as little as $2 an acre to Franklin Roosevelt’s Resettlement Administration.

Most of what was purchased under the federal program would become the Little Missouri National Grassland. But another 60,000 acres that lay in two unconnected blocks corresponding roughly to the present boundaries of the North and South Units, were earmarked for the eventual creation of a state park honoring Theodore Roosevelt. Until then, the federally-controlled lands would be designated as the Roosevelt Recreation Demonstration Area.

But the ND state government made it very clear that the scale of the park would put it beyond their administrative capability. So President Franklin Roosevelt recommended that it be considered for possible inclusion in the National Park System. But the National Park Service resisted. They argued that the Badlands did not possess qualities deserving national park status. Not to mention that their budget had already been cut by 85% from 1940 to 1942. Instead, they suggested making it into a wildlife refuge. Eventually, with support from President Truman, the project was turned over to the US Fish and Wildlife Service and designated as the Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge.

But the idea of a national park did not die. It would find a strong ally in ND Congressman William Lemke. In the winter of 1945 he introduced a bill to the Congressional Committee of Public Lands, asking the members to consider a national park of 36,000 acres from the southern unit. But in his eager attempts to counter the wildlife refuge designation, Lemke unwittingly hurt the project. He excluded the possibility of it being designated as a historical site because his proposal left out the Elkhorn and Maltese Cross Ranches. He then argued that the badlands “never had any great wildlife population” and therefore should be made into a national park on the basis of its scenic value. The bill passed through Congress but was pocket-vetoed by President Truman in 1946.

Lemke would try again the following year. This time he reached a compromise with the NPS. If Lemke would include the historical areas associated with Theodore Roosevelt in the proposal, the NPS would agree to designate the region as a National Memorial Park rather than a National Park. President Truman accepted the compromise and signed the bill on this day, April 25, 1947 creating Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park.

Over time, the land would also be recognized for its diverse natural resources and by 1978 the area was re-designated as Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Written by Christina Campbell


Harmon, David, At the Open Margins: The NPS’s Administration of Theodore Roosevelt National Park (Medora: Theodore Roosevelt Nature and History Association; 1986)