Bakken Boom: Where the Buffalo Are Furloughed

Oil wells and sheet-metal buildings are hideous things, but America the Beautiful resumes as soon as you get past the last grim RV park and last signs of our shoddy civilization. The easiest way to refresh the soul is to look on the map for a big chunk of green: a national park or preserve or forest, or in the case of the Bakken, the Little Missouri National Grassland.

So that's where I headed on a cold Friday, the sky darkening and nervous reports on AM radio of a massive early blizzard that may or may not skip the northwestern corner of North Dakota.

The Bakken is far from a lifeless wasteland, despite the labor camps looking like prototypes for Mars colonies. I had already seen a deer, a fox and a raccoon—all huge, and all dead along the shoulders of the oil roads. Living creatures had also crossed my path, including a pheasant, a bushy coyote nearly the size of a gray wolf, a golden eagle staring down from a telephone pole, and an American White Pelican gliding over the river not far from the Halliburton warehouse.

A number of young bull moose had been clashing with humanity in nearby towns, including one who took up residence on a Bismarck golf course and two shot dead after being struck by cars. Would it be possible to peacefully engage with such creatures on a national grassland?

Traveling the backroads with my usual preparedness for such an expedition straight into an oncoming winter storm, I was equipped with a phone that would soon say "No Service," a light jacket, and one of the fancy apples I'd bought at the supermarket to make up for a dozen North Dakota meals without fruit or vegetables. My ride was a white Grand Caravan minivan with the engine light on and a dangerous lack of suspension—the family icon decals on the back window, including the dad saying "Git 'er done," suggested it had only recently been brought into service as an Avis rental.

A couple of hours in, I had passed by many oil rigs with natural gas flames shooting into the sky above the mostly fenced expanses dotted by immense round hay bales, but not much that could be called native prairie. This is because the Little Missouri National Grassland—more than a billion USDA-administered acres—allows ranching and oil extraction. Like the National Forest system, the national grasslands are "lands of many abuses." But they do at least limit permanent human habitation, and were launched after the Dust Bowl to prevent the rest of the Great Plains from being stripped to desert by farmers fighting drought and price control by Big Agriculture. This grassland, it turns out, is the biggest in a system of 21 national grasslands (including one Prairie Reserve) stretching from Oregon to Illinois.

Along the way I stopped at tree-lined creeks and old white churches and neat graveyards holding no more than a half-dozen family plots. Headed south along the Montana border, listening to the exquisite Americana music played by the Prairie Public station, I risked the storm and looped around to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, where'd I'd never been before. My national parks annual pass was safely at home 1,500 miles away, but it didn't matter because all the national parks were closed, thanks to a gang of old rich men who had decided this was the best way to keep Americans from being able to purchase individual health insurance.

I tried to explain this to the busload of retired Scandinavians who were eating and jabbering happily at Boots Bar & Grill across the road from the national park entrance, but they already knew about the sad joke of our political system. Once they finished their wine and got back on their tour bus to parts unknown, it was just me and the friendly staff and a sullen little bald-headed blob of about 25 who insisted on keeping Fox News blaring from the TV over the bar. I took my beer to the other end of the restaurant and had a good lunch anyway.

Because a minor highway bisects Theodore Roosevelt National Park, there were no barricades at the unmanned entrance booth in the little Western-style tourist town of Medora. I rolled by and was soon gazing down on an amazing scene of multicolored badlands topped with pinyon and juniper, the wild Little Missouri River below lined with a riot of fall color, orange and yellow and red beneath a churning gray sky. The fresh buffalo chips on the road and the sign warning me to keep away from the wildlife made the whole long journey suddenly thrilling.

I parked here and there along the empty road and walked up the nearest bluffs and then down to the river. The temperature was now 38, according to the Dodge Caravan's console. A raptor of some kind dove toward the water and vanished from my sight. The mixed-grass prairie is immense, the largest protected mixed-grass prairie in America and the one-time Western home of the great Republican president and conservationist Theodore Roosevelt. "I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota," Roosevelt later wrote about his happy times of outdoor adventure and wilderness appreciation in this land now named in his honor.

I generally want "boots on the ground," meaning my boots on the trail, but here I very much wished for a horse to ride across these expanses. There are herds of wild mustang, along with the elk and the pronghorn and that great beast who defines both a mythical American spirit and the massive slaughter of the plains, the buffalo.

There he was, 2,000 pounds of shaggy grandeur, gazing at me before I spotted him through the shivering cottonwoods and box elder.

There were no park rangers to stop me; the federal government had shut down and so had America's national parks. So I approached, respectfully and at a prudent distance, and spoke to the massive, shaggy king of the prairie:

"Mr. Buffalo," I said sternly and correctly, noting its bull horns and dangling penis. "Apologize to me for closing this national park!"

It looked away and resumed eating grass. I should've been struck down and trampled at that very moment. But God had also been furloughed by the U.S. House of Representatives.

As Teddy Roosevelt realized the first time he went out on this majestic land in 1883, the northwestern corner of North Dakota is one of the most beautiful Western landscapes. It is a place of Frederic Remington landscapes, incredible North American wildlife, and transcendent beauty. It is the opposite of the greedy Bakken hustle, and it is right on top of this very same geologic jackpot.

Ken Layne is reporting from the Bakken formation in North Dakota this week. Read his previous American Journal dispatches here.