By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Immediate solutions are in short supply for a federal agency looking to build a management plan for the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. Public input is not.
During a lengthy public meeting Monday night, representatives from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management were inundated with written and verbal suggestions from a mixed crowd of about 50 area residents, hunters, landowners and environmentalists.
The forum was the fifth of 11 meetings scheduled across north-central Montana. The events are intended to poll public opinion on a variety of issues regarding BLM management of the monument.
The monument was authorized by President Clinton on Jan. 17, 2001, through a presidential proclamation. Its boundaries surround more than 496,000 acres of federal, state and private lands in Chouteau, Blaine, Phillips and Fergus counties. The BLM was assigned to design and implement a management plan that balances the competing interests of various user groups.
The bureau's field office in Lewistown has embarked on a campaign to poll public opinion about issues including access, resource development, and visitor use.
To date the BLM has received nearly 6,000 responses, including suggestions from people in every state, Puerto Rico, and five Canadian provinces.
BLM monument project manager Gary Slagel said during the meeting that the public meetings are just one step in the lengthy process to develop the plan.
"We're looking for specific management ideas," he said. "Once we get all of the comments on the cards, we'll take them to Lewistown and develop alternatives."
Dozens of comment cards were read and discussed during the three-hour meeting.
Hugo Tureck, a rancher and member of Friends of the Upper Missouri Breaks Monument, said restricting access and curtailing construction are the most important issues facing the monument.
Tureck said he would like to see ATVs and motorized watercraft banned from the monument, with the exception of BLM vehicles in emergency situations. Montana hunters should receive land access equal to that of outfitting operations, he said. Tureck also advocated reducing the number of roads within the monument to allow habitat security for big game.
"The most critical thing is establishing a travel management plan," he said. " Our commitment is to come to meetings and get people to speak out. We don't want anything to be constructed in the monument. It needs to be preserved."
One issue that arose on several occasions during the meeting was whether private property should be subject to the monument's management plan. U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., drafted legislation that would have excluded private property from the monument's boundaries. The measure was staunchly opposed by a number of environmental groups.
Several comment cards at Monday's meeting argued that private property is an integral part of the Breaks and is essential to historic preservation.
"Private property should not be excluded," one person wrote. "They're part of the landscape. Some of the most important historical sites are on private land."
"Outfitting should be banned unless Montana hunters are given equitable access," another card said. "This will ensure the monument doesn't become a playground for those who can afford outfitters."
BLM spokesman Lou Hagener said seven permits have been issued to big game outfitters in the monument.
Several comment cards suggested widespread road closures, a proposition that starkly contrasted with one from the Havre Rifle and Pistol Club. The group wrote that it is "opposed to road closures of any kind during big-game hunting season."
The gun club affiliates made their presence known during the meeting by bringing eight members, some wearing gun club attire, and speaking at length about the negative affects road closures would have on hunters.
A Havre Rifle and Pistol Club member later clarified his position by saying hunting necessitates using larger roads to access hunting areas, but that he did not oppose closing smaller roads that could negatively affect wildlife.
Another issue that arose during the meeting was whether harvesting wood should be allowed within monument boundaries. The consensus among many who spoke during the meeting was to allow landowners and BLM personnel to remove some wood as a fire management method. Most said they opposed any commercial wood removal, although a BLM spokesman acknowledged that commercial timber operations "are not much of an issue" because the area doesn't have much wood.
The question was further complicated by whether trucks and chain saws should be used for wood removal. Several people said they opposed the use of any power tools.
Several suggestions dealt with the future of natural gas drilling. Suggestions ranged from eliminating the operations completely to honoring existing leases but prohibiting further development.
A BLM spokesman said interest in the Missouri Breaks area has increased as natural gas prices have risen. Land near the Breaks saw a high level of development in the '70s during the energy crisis but died off when oil and natural gas prices plummeted a few years later. The rise of natural gas prices during the last four years has stimulated new drilling, he said.
Motorized travel within the monument was one issue that received a vast array of suggestions. Most people who offered suggestions said they support restrictions on ATVs and other motorized vehicles, though opinions varied on motorized water travel.
Several cards suggested eliminating all powered watercraft except for those used by the BLM for monument management and emergency purposes. One person advocated eliminating those as well.
Montana State University-Northern history professor Bill Thackeray suggested that ranchers use horses in lieu of ATVs.
"I may be old-fashioned, but I don't know why you can't handle cattle on horses instead of three-wheelers," he said.
Thackeray also expressed concern about campers blaring loud music at campsites within the monument.
"You hear people blasting Metallica at 3 a.m.," he said. "I like Metallica too, but not when I'm trying to sleep."
A number of comment cards made suggestions regarding 10 small airstrips within the monument boundaries. Several said they would like to see the strips closed, and several others suggested limiting their use.
A representative for the Montana Pilots Association wrote that she would like to see the strips continue to operate. The group would be willing to work with the BLM to limit environmental impact, she added.
A large number of people expressed a desire to see the Upper Missouri River Breaks area researched more extensively.
"It strikes me this whole area should be studied further," Thackeray said.
Bob Decker, executive director of the Montana Wilderness Association, said the monument is one of the few truly undeveloped areas left in the country.
"The Missouri is 2,700 miles long," he said. "This is the last 150 miles where you can have some peace and quiet and see the land as Lewis and Clark saw it."
Tureck said after the meeting that he felt encouraged by the presence of strong support for preserving the Breaks.
"The one thing I really heard in this meeting was that people want to see the roads closed," he said. "Everybody really loves the area. They don't want to see it changed."