By Tim Leeds
About 100 people gathered at the first hearing held by the governor's task force on the Missouri Breaks National Monument Tuesday in Chinook, with a majority asking that the boundaries be changed to leave out private land.
"What we need is reasons, reasons why you're opposed, reasons why you're for it," Blaine County Commissioner Art Kleinjan, chairman of the task force, said at the beginning of the meeting.
Gov. Judy Martz appointed the task force after Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton in March asked Martz to collect information about whether the monument designation, including its boundaries, should be changed. The task force is also meeting today in Great Falls and Thursday at Winifred High School.
President Clinton designated the area a national monument in January. Clinton's Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, had asked the Montana Resource Advisory Council in 1999 to conduct hearings to see what Montanans wanted done with the Upper Missouri Breaks. The RAC conducted hearings in 1999 and 2000, then recommended monument status for the Breaks.
"I'm not only unhappy about this, I'm mad," Burt Lillis of Lloyd told the task force.
Lillis characterized the monument boundaries, which surround 80,000 acres of private land, as an ill-conceived, hastily made decision by a lame duck president. He said he thinks restrictions the designation places on energy exploration, and restrictions on private property rights, are unconstitutional.
Tom Walling of Winifred said he owns 320 acres inside the boundaries. He added that he was never contacted about his land being within the monument.
"Not to this day," Walling said.
Walling said after the meeting that even though the government has told him the designation won't effect how he uses his property, he worries that the government will do something that will affect his property rights.
"Why else put private lands inside the boundary?" he asked.
Wendy Whitehorn of Dutton, a member of the Friends of the Missouri Breaks Monument, testified that she could tell the task force what the monument status won't do.
"Basically, it won't do anything," she said.
Whitehorn said the monument designation does not affect private land, that grazing on the monument is regulated by other laws that supersede the monument status, that there have been no road closures, and that current leases to produce natural gas in the monument will continue.
"In short, the monument doesn't change anything and I challenge you to prove that it will," she said.
Several ranchers testified that a major concern is the potential loss of grazing leases on the public land. Rudy Stoltz, who ranches near the Judith River, pointed to loss of leasing in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge as an example.
The C. M. Russell area was designated as a game range in 1936 and was converted to a wildlife refuge in 1976. It is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and has separate rules and regulations.
Acting monument manager Gary Slagel, with the federal Bureau of Land Management field office in Lewistown, testified that the BLM has no intention of stopping grazing in the area.
"The bottom line is grazing will continue," he said in an interview before the hearing. "We don't anticipate grazing will change and that's stated right in the (presidential) proclamation."
John Anderson of Havre said a major concern of his as a pilot is that most flights above national monuments administered by the National Park Service are restricted to 2,000 feet or higher. Many pilots fly lower than that through the Breaks area to avoid problems with weather, he added.
Mark Good, central field coordinator for the Montana Wilderness Association, said the RAC recommended some restrictions. He said authority over flights belongs to the Federal Aviation Administration, and the RAC recommendations and BLM management cannot control them.
"I'm kind of surprised to see a whole 'nother round of hearings," Don Marble of Chester said. He added that he attended the RAC meeting in Havre and the meeting seemed fair and allowed public comment. He said the monument is designated now, and Montana should move on to addressing other issues.