Roosevelt Library backers look to Walmart heir, big oil

It’s unclear how much money might come from the Roosevelt family itself

BISMARCK, N.D. — A Walmart heir, a wealthy governor and energy companies profiting from North Dakota oil could fund a big chunk of the private money needed by developers of a presidential library for Theodore Roosevelt in the western Badlands where he hunted and ranched before becoming the 26th U.S. president.

It’s unclear how much money might come from the Roosevelt family itself, though at least one descendant lobbied state lawmakers on behalf of the project.

Legislators last month approved $50 million to operate the library, but that must be matched by $100 million in private money to build it and fund an ongoing project at Dickinson State University to digitize tens of thousands of Roosevelt’s papers.

Roosevelt spent four years on a ranch in the North Dakota Badlands while in his 20s. The area of rugged hills, ridges, buttes and bluffs is now a national park and the state’s top tourist attraction. An effort to build a presidential library in his native New York failed — and North Dakota leaders saw an opportunity.

The library foundation has $52 million in private pledges. The source hasn’t been publicly disclosed, but all indications are that most of it is coming from former Walmart Inc. Chairman Rob Walton and his wife, Melani, a Dickinson State graduate and library foundation board member.

Melani Walton referred questions from The Associated Press to the Walton Family Foundation. Spokeswoman Kiki McLean didn’t immediately comment.

Gov. Doug Burgum, who pushed for state support, told lawmakers in January that they could expect some quick and large private donations if they approved public money. He then brought the Waltons and a Roosevelt descendant to Bismarck to meet with lawmakers.

“We were led to believe at least one big donor that was planning on giving — if the state put up $50 million, they were willing to match it,” Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner said. “They (the Waltons) were at the Capitol in January stumping for it. I guess it’s really no secret.”

Neither the governor’s office nor foundation CEO Mike Eggl would reveal who has made pledges. Eggl said the foundation has a two-year goal to raise the remaining $48 million.

The North Dakota Petroleum Council, a trade group representing about 500 energy companies, backs the project. President Ron Ness said both the council and individual oil and gas companies are likely to contribute “substantial support.”

Burgum, who sold a software company to Microsoft in 2001 for $1.1 billion and later worked as a Microsoft executive, will contribute, his spokesman Mike Nowatzki said. But he wouldn’t say how much.

Tweed Roosevelt, Theodore’s great-grandson and CEO of the New York-based Theodore Roosevelt Association formed by Congress in 1920 to perpetuate Roosevelt’s legacy, said the association is likely to pledge only “some token support” because it has its own money needs. As far for whether he would donate, he said, “I’ll cross that bridge when I get there, but I’m not a rich guy.”

Theodore Roosevelt V lobbied lawmakers on behalf of the project, but efforts by the AP to reach him, and his wife, Serena, who serves on the foundation board were unsuccessful. Great-great grandson Kermit Roosevelt III, who also serves on the library foundation board, did not respond to requests for comment.

A few national groups also have pledged general support but not money, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Park Foundation, and the Boone and Crockett Club, a hunting and habitat conservation group founded by Roosevelt.

The library and museum would be built in Medora, a tourist town on the doorstep of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Ed Schafer, son of the town’s developer and a former governor and U.S. agriculture secretary, heads the foundation that oversees development in the area. Neither he nor the group plan to donate to the library project.

“Our responsibility, in my opinion, is to keep Medora strong and vibrant, because that’s the best thing for the library, to be integrated into the community.”

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