“You have to know the past to understand the present.” ~ Carl Sagan ~ Part 2

Understanding the past is key in understanding how and why the current management practices in Theodore Roosevelt National Park have been allowed to continue the way they have. 

It is hard to believe at times, but I have lost count of the number of times I have felt completely out of my mind when I have asked questions and have been made to feel like:

  • I am a fool for asking
  • I have no right to ask any questions to a federal agency as a tax paying citizen
  • Have been made to feel guilty for “harassing” the park and park management
  • Have walked away from many conversations from other so called “advocates” when their answers don’t seem to give me those “warm fuzzy” feelings – you know the ones that make you feel like your question has actually been answered.
  • “We don’t question the park; they know what they are doing,” Along with “We support what the park decides, even if we do not agree with them.” Are the most disturbing answers of all that we have gotten REPEATEDLY over the years.

A few years ago, an amazing thing happened to us.  We took a trip to Linton, ND and got to meet Frank Kuntz, one of the founders of the Nokota Horse Conservancy.  We consider Frank to be one of the dearest people we have been honored to call a friend.  Through our hectic lives (you know Frank is a movie star now!  Google Vanishing Knowledge!) it is always nice when we can take a moment to catch up with each other.  It’s even better when we get opportunities like we did this weekend where Frank surprises us and comes into our shop in Medora to visit and chat.

Amazingly, this man has been fighting a very similar fight that we are now since the 1970’s.  THAT IS OVER 50 YEARS OF HEARING THE LITERAL SAME OLD SAME OLD!!!!  The advocacy efforts of Frank, his late brother Leo and the people who have built the Nokota Horse Conservancy to what it is today is not only inspiring, but I always feel like I am NOT doing enough after I spend time with someone who has been advocating for as long as Frank has. 

What has helped us even more is that Frank has come to many of the same conclusions as we have.  Frank has also shared many of the EXACT SAME ANSWERS to the EXACT SAME QUESTIONS that we are asking now, some 40+ years after him!

I explained to Frank where we are with things with our advocacy group and he was happy and hopeful.  Gary and I had tears in our eyes when he thanked us for what we are doing to help the “ponies”.  We honestly can’t say THANK YOU enough to Frank and his late brother for the amazing work they have done to literally save the “ponies”.

Through the course of our talks, a name came up – Robery Utley.  I had heard this name before and actually, it was just mentioned again to me earlier in the week.  Twice in one week is definitely a sign.

Then I did it!  Went right into one of the biggest rabbit holes I have ventured down in all the years we have been researching the wild horses of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  I am STILL digesting the information, so I thought it would help all of us if we took things piece by piece and looked at things.

So WHO is Robert Utley?

We feel that The Coalition to Protect America’s National Park’s gives a pretty good description of who Robert Utley is (from their website: https://protectnps.org/centennial-biographies-2/robert-m-utley/#:~:text=Following%20graduation%2C%20Utley%20joined%20the%20U.S.%20Army%20serving,Historian%20for%20the%20Southwest%20Region%20in%20Santa%20Fe. )

“Utley joined the NPS in permanent status in September 1957 as Regional Historian for the Southwest Region in Santa Fe. In 1964 at the age of 34, he was selected by NPS Director George Hartzog to serve as Chief Historian in Washington, D.C. While in that position he also served in 1966-1967 as Acting Chief of the newly-created Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation.  He followed that as Director of the Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation, Assistant Director of the National Park Service for Park Historic Preservation, and Deputy Executive Director of the President’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, serving in that position until his retirement from federal service in 1980.

As Chief Historian when the National Park System was growing rapidly, he helped shape that system to high standards.  He also instituted rigorous professional standards pertaining to sites the Service managed, ensuring high-quality credible interpretation, and demanding appropriate preservation decisions for park historic buildings and sites.  As Acting Chief of the Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation, he played a pivotal role in developing the organizational structure needed to launch the new national historic preservation program. He was actively involved in shaping the historic preservation bill that became law and the actions the NPS took to create the federal/state preservation program now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Among his many noteworthy accomplishments, he chaired a committee of NPS professionals who drafted the criteria for the newlyexpanded National Register of Historic Places.

Robert Utley is one of the founders of the Western History Association and a member of the editorial board of The American West Magazine. The Western History Association annually awards the Robert M. Utley Book Award. The Western Historical Quarterly was launched during his presidency.  He served as Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Eastern National Parks and Monument Association.  In 1974, Purdue University awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Letters. The University of New Mexico followed suit in 1976 and Indiana University in 1981. Since 1980, he has been married to NPS alumnae historian and park manager Melody Webb.  Robert Utley is widely known for his generosity and mentoring of new authors.  His contributions to the history of the American West, the nation’s historic preservation program and policies, and the National Park Service and System are inestimable.”


In May of 2009, Robert Utley gave an interview discussing SPECIFICALLY the Nokota horses that came from Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  Remember the credentials above as we share highlights of his interview below.  The full interview is now a part of our library along with other interviews and documents we feel pertain to our advocacy work.

“You don’t answer historical questions with scientific evidence (genetics).  You answer it with historical research.  Castle’s done it.”

“I have vigorously objected to the Park Service’s continued insistence on genetic evidence, which is simply an easy way to get off the hook.”

“I believe that those running wild within the Theodore Roosevelt National Park constitute a historic resource just like TR’s cabin and so forth, and the landscape is a historic resource that the service is obligated to interpret and protect.”

“What I have urged is no more than the Regional Director of the Park Service to get into a conversation with the people down in Linton and listen to what Castle has to say. And some of those horses ought to be back in the Park; but if they aren’t, they still should be recognized as historic resources of the Park that should be treated as such and interpreted as such. Now I’ve got the authority to say that. I was Chief Historian of the National Park Service, I wrote virtually all of the standards and policies by which these things are judged.”

“The problem is they don’t want to acknowledge that they did the wrong thing back then and be embarrassed by it. I’d love to see them embarrassed, that’s what we did when we sued them over Little Bighorn.”

“I was on the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation as Deputy Director, which oversees the federal law that would have applied in the case of TR when they started taking those horses out, because that was a federal undertaking with an adverse effect. I am using official terminology, adverse effect on the Park, and that is a violation of the regulations of the Advisory Council and therefore federal law. The Park then should have recognized those as historic resources and followed all of the hoops you have to jump through under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.”

“And in that event the Park complies, or if it refuses to comply, it has to go clear up to the Advisory Council, which reports directly to the President, and be considered and the Advisory Council will render an opinion, in this case it would have been…of course, it is a historical resource.  But the Park Service almost NEVER goes that far.  I mean this is the…the Park Service is the one who originated the law and it’s just unthinkable that it would not have been stopped from moving those horses then. But they didn’t recognize them, and nobody else did, as historic resources. And the Superintendent wanted to get rid of them, whoever it was then.”

You may be asking yourself how someone of Robert Utley’s stature came to comment on a small herd of horses in Southwestern North Dakota. 

Stay tuned as we continue down the rabbit hole….

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