Breaks monument supporters unhappy with management plan
By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
While a lawsuit is delaying the release of a draft management plan for the Upper Missouri River Breaks Monument, a group supporting the monument is taking issue with specifics in the plan.
"It's moving in the wrong direction to create something that the monument proclamation doesn't speak to," said Dennis Tighe of Great Falls, president of the Friends of the Missouri Breaks Monument.
The monument was created by a presidential proclamation in January 2001 shortly before President Clinton left office.
The Friends of the Missouri Breaks Monument said several measures in the draft don't protect the monument's resources, including provisions that would allow airstrips, use of jet skis, too many roads and oil and gas wells, and one that would allow people to take fossils and plant samples from the monument.
Gary Slagel, manager of the monument for the federal Bureau of Land Management in Lewistown, said the preferred alternatives identified by BLM in the draft are still in the very early stages and could change before BLM drafts a permanent plan.
"Until we come out with a draft, that will continue to change," he said. "This is just a preliminary draft that hasn't gone out for comment and analysis."
Slagel said BLM is also planning to resolve issues in the lawsuit that is delaying the plan. The Montana Wilderness Association filed the lawsuit over three gas exploration leases BLM approved in 1999. U.S. District Judge Don Molloy ruled earlier this year that BLM did not collect enough public input on the leases.
BLM will hold public meetings to collect comment on the three leases, Slagel said.
"(Molloy) never said the leases were invalid," he added.
The lawsuit has put the planning process about a year behind schedule, Slagel said.
"We had hoped to have that draft on the street prior to December," he said.
He said it now appears that the draft won't be released until next spring or summer, and the final management plan probably won't be ready until 2006.
The meetings BLM will hold about the leases will not address other issues, such as transportation or how many people can be in the monument at a time, he said.
The alternatives are being developed by a team that includes representatives of state agencies, counties and BLM's Central Montana Resource Advisory Council.
Hugo Tureck, who ranches near Coffee Creek south of the monument, said the planning process for the management plan has been too piecemeal.
"There's not a vision out there for what this is supposed to be for the American public," said Tureck, a former RAC chairman.
Tighe said the proposed alternatives seem to ignore the comments most people have made about the monument.
BLM held 11 open houses in 2002 to collect comment about what the management plan should address. By the end of 2002, the bureau
received more than 5,700 comments, and will accept comments until the plan is complete.
"I think the general feeling from the Friends is the BLM is paying too little attention to what the public expressed," Tighe said.
The proposed alternatives limit some activities in the Breaks. Jet skis, for example, would be allowed only within 3 miles of Fort Benton. While collection of some common fossils would be allowed, that would be limited to certain areas, certain fossils and certain seasons. The airstrips that would be allowed are six existing airstrips, while four other airstrips would be shut down.
Tighe said the alternatives still go too far.
"If they don't get it right now, if they don't maintain the wild landscapes now, they won't be able to do it 15 years from now because it will be too late," he said.
A topic of discussion at the agency team meetings has been what roads to keep open.
The draft alternative said the roads associated with resource use, such as recreation sites, natural gas well sites, and backcountry airstrips, will be kept open. All BLM roads leading to state and private lands would be open for administrative and private access. Roads will be kept open for public use if the use meets management objectives, the alernative said.
BLM may reduce the number of roads in identified crucial wildlife habitat or areas with high erosion or slope, or with unique geological formations, cultural sites or areas near the river bank where the environment is being degraded, the alternative said. BLM also reserves the option to build new roads if necessary, it said.
The alternative said roads may have restrictions, including seasonal closure of roads near wildlife habitat.
Tureck said BLM is taking the attitude that people who want a road closed need to justify its closure. The Friends of the Missouri Breaks Monument take the opposite stance, he said.
Only major roads should be kept open for public access, with private roads kept open for access to private land, he said.
"Beyond that point they should consider every road closed unless there's a reason to have it open," he said. "They're not talking about creating new roads, but the Friends have argued there are too many roads out there now."
Another contested issue is increasing the number of oil and gas wells allowed in the monument.
The presidential proclamation said development of existing oil and gas leases shall be managed so development doesn't interfere with the proper management of the monument.
Slagel said the team representing the various agencies decided in April to change the draft preferred alternative to allow owners of leases to petition to have more than four wells per 640-acre section.
Tighe said allowing more than four wells is far too lenient.
"To allow very dense drilling doesn't seem to me to be protecting those things that should be protected," he said.
Written comments on the management plan can be mailed to: Gary Slagel, monument manager, Bureau of Land Management, Lewistown Field Office, P.O. Box 1160, Lewistown, MT 59457-1160. Comments can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.