HELENA (AP) — Conservation groups are asking a higher court to evaluate their lawsuit that challenges the federal Bureau of Land Management's plan for the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in central Montana.
Three groups totaling six plaintiffs filed appeals Monday after a federal judge dismissed their lawsuit in August. The groups, including The Montana Wilderness Association, The Wilderness Society and Friends of the Missouri Breaks Monument, are asking the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to agree that the BLM plan doesn't go far enough to protect the 590-square-mile monument, which was created in 2001 by President Bill Clinton.
In their lawsuit, consolidated from several filed in 2009, they argued the plan is insufficient against natural-gas development and cattle grazing near the river, and that it did not close enough roads or airstrips. The federal judge that dismissed the lawsuit said the plan strikes the right balance between protection and recreation.
On Friday, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys said they are not trying to lock up the land against multiple uses, but additional protections need to be put in place to make sure the historical, geological and biological objects within it are protected.
"We believe the BLM's plan as written turns the monument into a motorized playground," said Matthew Bishop of the Western Environmental Law Center in Helena. "It allows motorized use through air, land and water throughout the entire monument."
The monument follows the only free-flowing part of the Missouri River along the route explored by Lewis and Clark in the early 1800s.
The BLM management plan has been in effect since 2008. It closed 10 backcountry airstrips and 146 miles of the river to floatplanes and personal watercraft. Some 320 miles of the 605 miles of roads in the monument were closed seasonally or all year.
The agency, in developing the plan, said its vision is to manage the monument in a manner that maintains and protects the objects within it and preserves its remote and scenic character, while incorporating multiple use laws and recognizing existing rights.
Bishop said the plan leaves six air strips in the monument, allows motorized boat use with only minor seasonal restrictions and allows the BLM to convert into roads old two-track paths that should be reclaimed by the land.
"It puts multiple use on equal footing with multiple use. Protecting the objects should be first and foremost," he said. "This is one of the last places that still looks the way it did when Lewis and Clark traveled through it more than 200 years ago."