Havre Daily News
U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials heard suggestions on how to manage the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument from all sides Monday night at a public hearing on the bureau's proposed management plan at the Holiday Village Shopping Center.
Wilderness and conservation advocates fear the number of roads and airstrips in the bureau's preferred plan will take away from the Breaks' remote quality, though some area hikers said more access is needed. Some worry that increased traffic and noise from aircraft will be a detriment to wildlife, though others who live near the Breaks called that concept ignorant.
Ranchers worry that their livelihood will be taken away by management provisions proposed for the 375,000-acre national monument.
The public comment period on the bureau's management plan, which includes six options - one a preferred alternative - runs through the end of April. The bureau will then review the comments this summer before drafting a final management plan, which it hopes to have in place by the end of the year.
The debate was largely congenial, though some ranchers bemoaned the testimony of paid staffers of wilderness advocacy groups, and local conservationists bristled at being labeled “environmentalist whackos” by a state legislator.
The Breaks are home to an impressive array of wildlife, including one of the finest bighorn sheep herds in the West. The stark badlands and astounding white cliffs along the 149-mile stretch of the Missouri River remain as Lewis and Clark saw them two centuries ago. The monument includes hundreds of archeological sites - the land is revered by some American Indian tribes - and some of the wildest land in all of the Great Plains. The monument contains six wilderness study areas, along with the Cow Creek Area of Critical Environmental Concern.
The bureau's preferred plan would close 216 miles of roads, leaving 207 miles open year-round and an additional 171 miles open seasonally. The plan would also close four of the 10 rural airstrips in the Breaks, leaving two open year-round and another four open in the summer.
The plan allows for some seasonal motorized boating on the river. It also retains livestock grazing rights for area ranchers and allows existing land leases to be developed for natural gas exploration.
Within its boundaries are about 80,000 acres of private land and another 39,000 acres of state land. Those lands will not be managed as part of the monument.
Several conservation advocates said the plan includes too many roads - 75 percent of the monument land would be within a half-mile of a road - and an unprecedented number of airstrips.
“This is a national monument. It's supposed to be managed to the highest standard, not to the lowest common denominator,” Montana Wilderness Association field organizer Mark Good said.
State Rep. Ed Butcher, R-Winifred, said he's concerned that the 120 ranchers who own land in the Breaks will suffer under the management plan.
“They'll be driven out,” Butcher said. “You just keep tightening the noose.”
He said he worries that the ranching operations will die out, drying up towns like Winifred, Big Sandy, Roy and Geraldine. He's also concerned that oil and gas companies will stay away from the area - even lands surrounding the monument - causing the loss of millions of dollars in tax revenues.
After the meeting, he explained why he called some in attendance “environmentalist whackos.” He said the conservationists in attendance are concerned about how roads and airstrips will affect wildlife, but they don't understand how wildlife behaves around motorized vehicles.
“We probably have a closer connection to wildlife than anybody else,” said Butcher, who ranches near Winifred. He said he and his family often have to drive wildlife away from motorized vehicles so they can go about their work. “This thing is so absolutely absurd,” he added.
Havre resident Mike Bagley said he often hikes and takes photos of scenery and wildlife in the Breaks. He's got bad knees and other health problems, and said he's concerned that limited access would reduce his opportunities to enjoy the monument.
“I just love the area,” he said. “I believe there should be access” for people with medical problems, he added. “I think there needs to be some concern for people like me.”
Jim Brenna, another Havreite who said he enjoys spending time in the Breaks, said he understands the concerns of those worried about limited access, but he said the Breaks need to be protected.
“It's just great that we have a place like this set aside, instead of in western Montana, for once,” he said.
Brenna said he would propose closing more roads, and said that many in the area go nowhere and are unnecessary.
“We've all seen what happens when a place gets used too much,” he said.
Chouteau County rancher Joy Crawford said she's been opposed to the monument since the very beginning. She worries that ranchers will be squeezed out of existence.
“You have no right to make this a wilderness. ... Fix this plan to something we can live with,” she said.
Area resident and outdoors writer Tim Faber said the bureau's plan is an “incomplete document” and asked that Montana State University-Northern be involved in further studies of wildlife in the monument.
Blaine County Commissioner Art Kleinjan said he's also been opposed to the monument from the beginning.
“I think there's been too much emphasis on protection of wildlife. That's going to impact the ranchers,” he said.
Montana Wilderness Federation conservation director Larry Copenhaver said he doesn't believe the monument will affect ranchers' livelihoods.
“I don't see the evidence. Maybe I'm being naive,” he said. “Time will tell.
“Hunters and anglers value this place,” he added. “We need to keep this place for all people, for all time.”
Winifred rancher Matt Knox said ranchers are concerned that any future changes in the grazing agreements on BLM land will directly affect adjacent state and private parcels. He said the land is too rough to be fenced off, so ranchers could be forced to move their livestock to graze elsewhere if federal regulations limit grazing.
“Any management change in either of those three categories would directly affect the other two,” Knox said.
Knox and another Winifred rancher, Lester Slivka, said they are also concerned that the bureau's visual resource management restrictions will hamper their ability to construct reservoirs and do other ranch work.
After the meeting, BLM official Clark Whitehead explained that some visual resource management designations changed when the monument was created. The bureau sets out restrictions based on three factors: scenic category, sensitivity level and viewing distance. The sensitivity of many of the areas was raised when the monument was established, he said.
Whitehead said ranchers need to understand that reservoir projects and other work will not be forbidden, but there may be more costly environmental studies conducted before the work is done.
Havreite Rebecca Hargis reminded those in attendance that the Breaks' management is not an easy task.
“I don't think there are any easy answers,” she said. “Everyone's interests do need to be taken into consideration.
“There's a lot to be considered in this,” she added. “Our heritage and our values need to be considered, along with people's livelihood.”