Seeding the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library project starts with native plant restoration
The harvest of native plant seeds, including some taken from Theodore Roosevelt's Maltese Cross and Elkhorn Ranch sites, marks a "hands-on-the-ground" step forward for the future western North Dakota attraction.
MEDORA, N.D. — A prairie wildfire in the spring of 2021 swept across the entire 90-acre site that will be the home of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and left behind a blackened carpet of grass and charred brush.
Now, more than a year later, Kurt Marsh is pleased to see what has come from the disaster. Fire is a natural part of prairie ecology, he explained, helping to rejuvenate the native plants.
“It gets rid of the accumulated biomass,” a dense mat of dead grass and organic matter that can choke new growth, he said. “It’s almost a reset for the landscape. Pre-settlement, these prairies burned every five to 15 years, roughly.”
Marsh is a landscape architect for Snøhetta, the architectural firm that designed the library, which will start construction next year with a grand opening set for July 4, 2026.
Before construction starts, Snøhetta is engaged in another sort of building project, one given a hand by last year’s wildfire: restoring native plants to the future library’s grounds.
Teams of volunteers and ecologists are fanning out in the grasslands surrounding Medora, at sites that include Roosevelt’s own Maltese Cross and Elkhorn Ranch properties, to collect seeds from native plants.
The harvested seeds, collected this year and next year, will be dried and cataloged. Then they will be germinated and multiplied in greenhouses at the North Dakota State University Extension research center in Hettinger before being planted at the library site.
Prior to being acquired for the library, the site was owned by the U.S. Forest Service and open to cattle grazing. By agreement, cattle grazing will continue on the pasture surrounding the library.
Even before ranching began during Roosevelt’s time in the 1880s, the area was grazed by buffalo herds that migrated through in the spring and fall, Marsh said as he walked the soon-to-be revitalized pasture.
“These species of grass are made to be stepped on,” he said. The grazing that has taken place on the pasture for decades has been beneficial, since native plant species have evolved along with the browsing mammals.
“It’s largely healthy,” Marsh said, adding that greater biodiversity can be achieved “with little tweaks in management.”
Restoration of the habitat is fitting for a library dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt, regarded as the nation’s most conservation-minded president. The Little Missouri Badlands, where his ranching and hunting experiences helped mold him, have been called the “cradle of conservation.”
Landscaping is a crucial part of the library, which will be covered by turf, allowing the building to blend into the surrounding prairie, said Ed O’Keefe, president and chief executive officer of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation.
“The library is the landscape,” he said. “Though a lot of attention is rightly focused on the beautiful building Snøhetta and JLG have designed, there is a mile-long pathway with destinations.”
A boardwalk loop near the perimeter of the site will encircle the property, its path close to the edge of the bluff, and connect to side trails enabling visitors to explore and experience the landscape.
“This will be a spectacular place for a walk, hike, stargazing, connecting to the Maah Daah Hey or T.R. National Park, outdoor classes and, of course, activities before and after the live performances in a 2,800-capacity outdoor theater,” O’Keefe said.
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The native prairie habitat restoration project got its start on a recent June morning, when 10 volunteers and ecologists went hunting seeds in rugged Badlands terrain south of Medora.
Before setting out with their collection bags hanging from their waists, the seed patrol was given a primer on what native plants to target.
One of the day’s priorities was threadleaf sedge, which is native to western North America and grows on slopes and eroded, dry areas.
“This is what we’ll be looking for,” said Nate Gingerich, a naturalist with RES, the firm hired to collect the seeds, as he held up a sample for inspection.
Sedge, which grows in tufts and resembles grass, but are a different species, can live hundreds of years, Marsh told the group. “Some of them can be ancient souls,” he said.
“They’re pretty ubiquitous in the Badlands matrix,” Gingerich said. “They’re a fundamental part of the matrix. They’re part of the local biodiversity."
Leaders tutored the group on other plants of interest, including whitlow grass and rock jasmine, that would be prized acquisitions. “These are bonus plants,” Marsh said.
Leafy spurge, an invasive plant species topped with tiny yellow blossoms, should be shunned, he added. “This is our worst enemy,” a spreading menace hated by ranchers and conservationists alike.
The Badlands landscape was an uncharacteristically lush green from recent rains, perfect conditions for a proliferation of seeds. “This is a good year to collect,” said Ben Geaumont, a wildlife biologist and volunteer.
The tutorial over, the group set out, heading south on the Maah Daah Hey Trail on a rugged course not far from the Little Missouri River.
More set patrols will go out collecting each month this summer and next, enabling them to harvest as different plants bloom.
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Last year’s wildfire nibbled at the edges of the Medora Musical’s Burning Hills Amphitheatre, just east of the site of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library, before firefighters doused the flames.
The Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, which owns and operates the musical, donated 3½ acres to the library to enable shared parking space and trails as well as enhancements to Chateau Road, which provides access to both sites.
“We will be working it together,” said Ken Vein, the presidential library’s director of design and construction. The partners will remove the “sea of concrete” in the shared parking area by introducing more vegetation.
“We don’t want to overbuild,” Vein said.
Parts of the pasture are overgrown with unwelcome leafy spurge. “We’re looking at starting biological warfare soon,” involving the release of beetles that feed on the invasive species. “They suppress it significantly.”
Charred skeletons of juniper bushes dot the plateau, natural “sculptural elements” that provide habitat for birds and insects. “It has sort of a ghostly beauty to it,” Marsh said.
In designing the library and its surroundings, every effort has been made to minimize disturbances and to blend with the Badlands terrain, Marsh said.
The boardwalk will be relatively flat, so people of all abilities can use it. It will tie together the entire library setting, including side trails and observation points. “It pulls the whole project together,” Marsh said.
The plateau location will allow visitors a 360-degree view of the Badlands, and the library is positioned to look out over a draw with the sculpted buttes of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the background.
The incessant prairie wind is an essential part of the landscape. Designers consulted with a wind specialist and incorporated the prevailing winds in the library’s design, Vein said.
“In our eyes, this is a landscape-first project,” Marsh said. The building itself will become part of the prairie, covered by grass and other native plants, soon to be seeded to enrich its mix of native plants, an effort Marsh believes Roosevelt would have appreciated.
“It's one of the first hands-on-the-ground things,” Vein said. “It’s not a shovel in the ground.”