Fighting to keep the oil boom out of North Dakota park

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 17, 2014 - 12:44 PM

Her mission: To protect Theodore Roosevelt National Park

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Valerie Naylor made her way down one of the many trails at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Wednesday, July 23, 2014 in North Dakota. Naylor has made an effort to keep surrounding large oil companies out of the park. ] (ELIZABETH FLORES/STAR TRIBUNE) ELIZABETH FLORES • eflores@startribune.com

From the vista where Valerie Naylor stands, the scenery is undeniably spectacular: Sculpted hills with layers of beige sandstone and ribbons of gray coal, pockets of cottonwood trees and junipers rustling, the serpentine Little Missouri River shimmering below.

Most visitors who come to the Oxbow Overlook feel its serenity. But Naylor, the park’s superintendent, worries. “So much of what you’re looking at is outside the park, and it’s so vulnerable,” she said.

How will she protect it all?

As North Dakota’s historic Bakken oil boom mushrooms around this little-known national park, Naylor, 56, is on a mission to keep its natural sounds, fresh air and breathtaking views free from the effects of runaway industrial development.

With a drilling frenzy now hitting a production milestone of 1 million barrels of oil a day, that work is getting more urgent. Naylor’s fight to protect the park reflects a larger drama still unfolding across this vast region as it struggles to balance the mind-boggling jackpot of the oil boom with its accompanying trade-offs. Almost every week it seems there’s a new proposal near the 70,000-acre park, Naylor said. One week it’s a cell tower. Another it’s a saltwater disposal well. “If you don’t keep your eye on everything, you could easily miss something that could have a massive impact on the park,” she said. She estimates that she and her staff have tried to get changes on more than 20 development plans since the boom began, often through polite but firm letters, testimony and follow-up conversations.

Modest and plain-spoken, Naylor neither apologizes for nor touts her efforts.

The park is “a very special place,” she said. “It deserves the same kind of protection as Grand Canyon and Yellowstone.”

As Naylor eased a hybrid SUV up the park’s north unit scenic drive, she pointed to a boundary fence amid fields of grasses and sweet clover. In the distance, an oil pump hammered slowly.

Though that well is still within view of the park, it’s better than it could have been, Naylor said. A few years ago, that pump and its large storage tanks and infrastructure were proposed for a spot right along the fence. It was one of the first developments that Naylor successfully worked with a company to get moved away.

Naylor wrote letters to the company, and representatives there were receptive to moving the pumping station almost 2 miles away, she said, but it took the company months of paperwork and negotiating.

“We’re very appreciative,” Naylor said. “It was very complex and a lot of work.”

Like ‘swatting flies’

To Naylor, the park is a perfect example of what a national park should be: wildlife, scenery and historical value. The park was named after the president who hunted buffalo in that area as a young man from New York, and later briefly lived there as a rancher while grieving the loss of his wife and mother.

Naylor’s affinity for the place began more than four decades ago, when she visited with her parents as a teenager from Oregon. She vowed to come back. She volunteered there as young adult, did research there during graduate school, and became the park’s superintendent 11 years ago.

Now, North Dakota has more than 11,000 producing wells, and the state’s oil and gas division estimates capacity for 60,000 more, with drilling continuing for at least 20 years.

At times at some vistas, Naylor said a park visitor could see more than 20 natural gas flares shining in the distance.

With no single clearinghouse for applications along the park’s miles of jagged boundary, Naylor and her staff, along with the North Dakota citizen group Badlands Conservation Alliance, have been scouring meeting agendas of local and county governments and state commissions. They can only oppose the proposed developments that they see.

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  • An eagle eye: Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor, above, keeps close watch over the park, working hard to make sure the oil boom doesn’t encroach too deeply.

  • ‘A very special place’: Among its many treasures, the landscape includes wildflowers and wildlife. Below, buffalo made their way across one of the roads. North Dakota has more than 11,000 producing oil wells, and the state’s oil and gas division estimates capacity for 60,000 more, with drilling continuing for at least 20 years. At times at some vistas, Naylor said a park visitor could see more than 20 natural gas flares shining in the distance.

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