Much, if not most, of what we know about Theodore Roosevelt’s time in the Badlands of western North Dakota comes from his own considerable writings such as his Hunting Trips of a Ranchman (1885) and Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail (1888). Another valuable and underappreciated source about those days is Lincoln Lang’s 1926 Ranching with Roosevelt. Not only does Lang, who identifies himself as “a companion rancher”, give the reader anecdotes about and insights into the brief ranching days of Roosevelt, he also relays the history of the Badlands in the years after the New Yorker’s departure. In an admixture of sorrow, anger and longing, he recounts the repeated attempts of man to bend the Badlands to his will, and in doing so he reminds us that this unique landscape has faced threats in the past just as it does today.
In the second to last chapter of the book, entitled appropriately enough, “Misapplied Energy”, Lang identifies “two waves of commercial vandalism” that had overrun the Badlands: “criminally insensate game butchery” and “unintelligent grazing.” (p. 335) He then proceeds to dwell on the third assault on the land, the opening in the 1890s of the grasslands for homestead farming. Lang pulls no punches in his denunciation of this short sighted decision to farm a land better suited to ranching. As we view the current threat to the Badlands posed by the Bakken oil boom, Lang’s language conveys not only his lament about what he witnessed in his time but seems both appropriate and prophetic regarding today’s challenges.
“What remained of the natural wild beauties of the country they trampled under foot and practically destroyed…to make it yield the promised reward. History had repeated itself. Nature’s wild kinsfolk, her inimitable handiwork, had been forced back into the earth from whence they came by the great on-rushing steam roller of our modern civilization.” (p. 340) “Vainly we had sought to fend off the uncongenial atmosphere creeping steadily westward in our wake. Now, at length, it had overwhelmed us.” (p. 344)
Lang despairs that “with the changing conditions I could note the rapid fading away of the native wild, free atmosphere of truth in which I had grown up. If we were doing a good business for the time, to those who knew the country as we did, it was easy to foresee the inevitable end. In the meantime, there was nothing to do but carry on until the bubble burst.” (p. 347) “The wild folk of the country, its romantic charm, its sylvan atmosphere were rapidly becoming but a memory. All that to me had seemed best in it was leaving or already gone. One of the wonder spots of the world, known as such but to the few capable of looking beneath the surface, of seeing it for what it actually was, I now saw being overrun by a vast horde of misdirected enthusiasts. No longer, alas, was it a good country to live in. Rapidly it was becoming Bad Lands in truth.” (p. 348)