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Theodore Roosevelt and the Reclamation Act of 1902


Although Theodore Roosevelt’s time in Dakota was short, the territory nonetheless left a distinct mark on the future president. His vigorous life in Dakota taught the sickly easterner the value of a hard day’s work and the inherent worth of even a common laborer. Roosevelt’s experiences in the Dakota Badlands did more than undermine the social elitism of his wealthy East Coast past – it dramatized the beauty of the American West and the need to care for and preserve the land.

Of principle concern was the maintenance of the region’s resources, which meant acknowledging the land’s limitations. As early as the 1880s, Roosevelt saw that local cattle-men were overstocking the prairie. The parched semi-arid land simply could not support intensive ranching or farming. In 1889 Roosevelt’s fears were echoed by Maj. John Wesley Powell who warned the delegates to North Dakota’s Constitutional Convention of the dangers posed by plowing up the western and central portions of the state without secure water sources.

While Roosevelt and others rightly feared the consequences of pushing the land beyond its natural limits, he was ever hopeful of the improvements possible through the latest in irrigation technology. Many more shared in these sentiments, including Senator Henry Hansbrough of North Dakota. Hansbrough proved instrumental in pushing through the Reclamation Act signed by Theodore Roosevelt on this date in 1902. The resulting irrigation projects served as a cornerstone to Roosevelt’s national conservation program.

Among the twenty-four irrigation projects designated in the act was the Lower Yellowstone Project in the Mon-Dak region of western North Dakota and eastern Montana. First authorized in 1904 and operational by 1909, the irrigation project’s 62 miles of main canal transformed over 40,000 acres of prairie on the west bank of the Yellowstone River into prime farmland, breathing new life into the nearby farming communities and stabilizing local farm production.

Today some 160,000 acres of North Dakota farmland are maintained by irrigation systems. They provide farmers greater crop selection, higher yields and security from recurrent drought. Perhaps even more importantly, the canals confirm the foresight of President Roosevelt. Farming in North Dakota must be conducted with great planning and care, respecting the limits of the land, while finding new ways to push those limits even farther than before.

Dakota Datebook written by Lane Sunwall


Jenkinson, Clay S. "Theodore Roosevelt's Footprint on North Dakota." Theodore Roosevelt Center: Dickinson State University, http://www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org/TR_Footprint.asp.

National Park Service. "Theodore Roosevelt and the Dakota Badlands." Nationa Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/hh/thro/throo.htm.