with draft Breaks plan
Havre Daily News
The proclamation creating the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, signed by President Clinton in 2001, said the more than 374,000 acres in the site - through which Lewis and Clark traveled and, later, Chief Joseph led the Nez Perce in the final stages of their failed escape - should be preserved for its “spectacular array of biological, geological and historic objects of interest.”
Home to an impressive array of wildlife, including mountain lions, elk, pronghorn antelope, mule and white-tailed deer, bald and golden eagles, sage grouse and one of the largest herds of bighorn sheep in the West, the towering white cliffs and badlands of the 149-mile stretch of the Missouri remain much as Lewis and Clark - and uncounted multitudes of American Indians before them - first saw them.
The Breaks offer peaceful escape, abundant game for hunting and hundreds of archeological sites.
Conservationists in Montana say a draft management plan created by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management doesn't live up to the call of the presidential proclamation. They say the plan allows too many and too much - of roads and rural airstrips, noise and disruption.
Monument manager Gary Slagel said the draft reduces the number of roads and airstrips already located within the Breaks. He said the plan balances the needs to protect the resources while providing public access to the land.
Wilderness advocates say the plan provides a vision roughly akin to other bureau land not protected by monument status. They say more needs to be done to protect an area that contains some of the wildest and most primitive lands in the Great Plains.
“This is a crucial time to be thinking about the future of this landscape,” Will Patric of the Montana office of The Wilderness Society said Monday. “Wehave some very basic concerns. We think the BLM is having a difficult time deciding what makes this land special.
“The Wilderness Society thinks that this national monument should have fewer roads, no airstrips and a quiet river,” Patric added. “The public has overwhelmingly said that's what they want.”
He added, “It's a fragile landscape that needs to be protected.”
Montana Wilderness Association field organizer Mark Good echoed those concerns.
“It's not supposed to be managed like other BLM land,” Good said in an interview earlier this month. “It's supposed to be managed with a higher standard.”
The public comment period for the bureau's draft Resource Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement has been extended until April 26. The public will have its first chance to voice concerns in person at a meeting tonight in Lewistown.
A meeting will be held at the Holiday Village Shopping Center in Havre on Monday, followed by meetings at the Chinook Motor Inn next Tuesday, the Big Sandy Community Hall on March 1 and the John Capture Center in Hays on March 2. The meetings will begin with a presentation at 6 p.m., followed by a formal comment period beginning at 7:30 p.m.
According to the plan, about 90 percent of land in the monument will be within one mile of a road. Conservationists proposed dropping that number to 70 percent, Good said. He said enough useable roads already are established, and the extra paths will fragment the habitat of the bighorn sheep, elk and other wildlife in the area.
Prior to the land's designation as a national monument, outdoor enthusiasts were able to drive where they wanted - leaving makeshift twin-track roadways atop many ridges. The plan allows too many of those roads to become established instead of being allowed to grow over, wilderness association member Ed Spinler of Havre said.
“There's no reason to be able to drive to every ridge top,” Spinler said. “Reasonable access means getting out of your vehicle and walking to the ridge top.”
Spinler and Good also took issue with a rule that would allow vehicles to travel up to 100 yards off either side of the roadways. The proclamation creating the monument forbade off-road vehicles.
The half-dozen backcountry airstrips proposed for the monument will be the highest of any national monument, Good said. Four are located in the Bullwhacker Area within the monument, known as some of the wildest country in the Great Plains, Good said.
“We don't feel that airstrips have any place in a national monument,” Patric said. “Why this is happening is very perplexing. (Planes) clearly take away from the remoteness and quiet” of the area.
Patric and Good said the airstrips have been in place for years, but said the bureau should not sanction the landing areas and should allow them to grow over.
Slagel said 10 airstrips now exist in the Breaks. The bureau's plan would leave two open year-round and four open seasonally. He could not say whether the half-dozen airstrips were the most in any national monument. He said noise from planes would not significantly affect the peaceful atmosphere of the Breaks.
“Our analysis doesn't show that,” he said.
Both Patric and Good said they'd like to see the bureau set aside some portions of the monument for nonmotorized boating year-round. The current plan calls for quiet boating on some sections for three months out of the year. Patric said he'd like to see the bureau get creative with the boating issue, and perhaps allow outfitters who already use motorized craft on the river to continue to do so, while restricting new use year-round.
“Right now the vast majority of the river users are canoers and kayakers,” Patric said. “People perceive the Breaks as an incredible canoeing opportunity.”
He said the bureau needs to revisit the plan and do more to protect the uniqueness of the monument.
“I'm not here just to bash the BLM,” Patric said. “They're trying ... (but) they're not being bold. This is about the future. There's a reason this place is still very much like Lewis and Clark found it 200 years ago.”
Slagel said it is not unusual for a management plan of this size to draw comments from both sides of the spectrum - those who want the amount of roads reduced, for instance, and those who want more access.
“Both sides have their thoughts on what they prefer,” he said.
“We'll take comment on everything and anything in the plan,” he added. “Once the comment period is over, we'll go in and review those comments. At that point, we can make changes to the draft.”
Slagel said the bureau hopes to have a final management plan in place by this time next year.
Spinler said he wants to see the bureau do more to protect the land.
“I like an area that is close and yet far,” Spinler said. “I can go there and be isolated. I like to go somewhere where the wildlife is a sustaining, viable population.
“It's a beautiful area,” he added. “If it's overused, it's going to be degraded.”