Plans for Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library raise traffic, safety concerns in Medora
Summer traffic in Medora, North Dakota, could double once the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library opens in 2026.
MEDORA, N.D. — The streets and parking spots of Medora are clogged during the summer when this hamlet of 129 swells to many times that size as tourists flock to this Badlands town that celebrates its Old West heritage.
The Medora Musical alone drew 125,000 last year and Theodore Roosevelt National Park, for which Medora serves as the gateway to the park’s south unit, attracted 803,000 visitors, a level not seen since the late 1970s, when the nation celebrated its bicentennial.
Now Medora is bracing for what local officials expect will be a significant increase in traffic and visitors once the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library opens here on July 4, 2026, an official event of the nation’s 250th birthday celebration.
Topping the list of concerns: The single point of access, Chateau Road, that serves the Medora Musical’s Burning Hills Amphitheatre and the adjacent presidential library.
Billings County officials are worried that one road won’t have the capacity to evacuate visitors from both the musical and presidential library in the event an emergency occurs when both are open. (In April 2021, a wildfire scorched grassland next to the Burning Hills Amphitheatre and burned wooden paneling along the walkway to the seats. The amphitheatre wasn't in use at the time, but the fire forced the evacuation of Medora.)
“It’s basically impossible to move around downtown Medora from the middle of June to the middle of September,” said Patrick Weir, the Billings County state’s attorney, who has been involved in negotiations and planning for the new presidential library.
Once the library opens, “It’s going to stress emergency services,” Weir said. “It’s going to stress the fire department, it’s going to stress the sheriff’s office.”
The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation is working on visitation estimates for the library, guided by the visitation figures for the Medora Musical and Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
“It is likely the summer traffic will double and Medora will become a year-round destination,” said Ed O’Keefe, president and CEO of the presidential library foundation.
To help pay for the increased demand for public safety services, Billings County is discussing possible taxes or payments in lieu of taxes by the foundation, Weir and O’Keefe said.
“The library’s indicated its wish to be a good citizen and pay their fair share of taxes,” Weir said. “This is not a bitter, adversarial discussion at this point. We’re just in the process of making sure we’re dealing with the issue of charitable purposes under North Dakota law.”
The presidential library’s goal of attracting visitors year-round would be a “huge change” for Medora, Weir said. “It’s a summer town,” with upticks during deer hunting season and Cowboy Christmas.
The most urgent concern is enabling the emergency evacuation of both the Medora Musical and presidential library at the same time. The amphitheatre seats 2,800 and the pitchfork fondue feed that precedes the musical can draw 1,500.
Although the musical is an evening event and the library will be a daytime attraction, the pitchfork fondue and library operations could coincide, Weir said. With only one shared road, “We have a real concern,” he said.
Local residents and officials want to preserve the elements that are unique to Medora, Weir said. A local planning effort , sponsored by the library foundation, is in the early stages to guide future development in the Medora area. The city of Medora, Billings County and the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation also are participating.
The North Dakota Department of Transportation is conducting a parallel study of the area’s expected need to accommodate greater traffic flows when the presidential library opens.
The transportation study will focus on Pacific Avenue, part of the Interstate 94 business loop that connects two interchanges that provide access to Medora.
Options include a possible secondary access road to the amphitheatre and presidential library. The state also will examine parking, traffic conditions and pedestrian crosswalks. The study will produce recommendations that could be completed before the library opens.
Additional opportunities for public comments will be provided. For the Medora area plan, public meetings are scheduled for Oct. 2 and Jan. 22. For the transportation study, public meetings are scheduled for Oct. 22 and Jan. 22, when a draft transportation plan will be ready. A final plan is expected in March 2023.