BILLINGS — In all likelihood, Montana’s Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument will remain intact next month when the Department of the Interior completes its review of its 26 other federally protected areas.
Montanans submitted thousands of letters to the Department of the Interior concerning the nearly 600-square-mile monument in Central Montana. The deadline for submission was Monday. Most comments submitted supported preserving the monument, which stretches 149 miles down the Missouri River and includes the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.
Using the Antiquities Act, former President Bill Clinton created the monument Jan. 17, 2001, less than a week before leaving office. Opponents have long contended the last-minute proclamation was a way to dodge public outcry.
Supporters Monday pointed to number of favorable responses to keeping the monument unchanged as proof that attitudes have changed.
“Statewide, we’ve had all kinds of organizations, the Montana Wildlife Federation, Montana Wilderness Society, a lot groups directing comments to our site, or to regulations.gov,” said Tim Dwyer, director of Friends of the Upper Missouri Breaks Monument. “Our goal was to get over 5,000 from the state, and I hope we’re close to that.”
Submissions on file at Regulations.gov indicate Montana commenters could number more than 5,000. There are comment-card style submissions bundled by groups, though many people submitted personal letters, many recognizing that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is a Montanan and through February the state’s only representative in the U.S. House.
“You were roommates with my ex-husband, Gary, in college at the U of O and we are both Montanans,” wrote Lexie Wyman, of Kalispell. “Please, consider how drilling everywhere and anywhere to become global energy monsters will affect our planet. You are safe, but what about your grandchildren? They deserve what we have!”
Daniel O’Leary of Helena wrote that the reviewing national monuments for revision was shameful. The review was sparked by objections by Utah’s Republican federal delegation to the creation of the Bears Ears National Monument in the final months of President Barack Obama’s second term. Though many people supported the designation, conservatives considered the size of Bears Ears (1.35 million acres) an overreach.
In June, Zinke recommended trimming Bears Ears, designating some of the areas outside its smaller boundaries as national recreation areas. There is an abundance of historic landmarks and archaeological features that need national monument protection, Zinke said, announcing his recommendation. Other parts of the land were scenic, but not necessarily deserving of monument status, according to the secretary.
Zinke proposed the archaeologically significant sites be co-managed with the tribes. The proposal needs approval by Congress, which would determine the national monument’s new boundaries.
In late June, Zinke said he would likely recommend the Upper Missouri River Breaks keep its current status.
Supporters of the Upper Missouri River Breaks site argued there was enough to be protected by the now-16-year-old monument designation.
“I've floated the Upper Missouri River Breaks several times from Fort Benton to the Judith Landing Campground," O’Leary wrote. "If you've ever read Stephen Ambrose's ‘Undaunted Courage,’ the nonfiction work describing Lewis and Clark's voyage thru the West, he stated the only portion of their trek close to the conditions they've saw is this area of the Upper Missouri River Breaks. It's a breathtaking area that needs protection. It deserves to be protected as well as all of our Public Lands.”
Opponents to the Upper Missouri River Breaks designation still argue that the monument designation was wrong.
Rancher Laura Boyce wrote that much of the Boyce family property was included in the monument area, while another large portion was left out. At some point, the family will begin making estate plans. When those plans are made, the heir who receives the monument land will have reason to object.
“We would like to do some estate planning, but are very limited out there, because who wants the half in the Monument? What is the future there? Will we continue to be allowed to graze cattle?” Boyce wrote. “The BLM land and private land is very checker-boarded out there, so it isn't practical to fence either one out.”
Real estate agent Keith Conroy told The Gazette in many ways there was better public access to the monument area before Clinton acted in 2001. This portion of the Missouri was a Wild and Scenic Rivers Corridor, a designation that also came with protections.
Conroy would like to see the region managed by the state, which he asserts is more likely to listen to Montanans than the federal government.