By Tim Leeds
The new chairman of the Upper Missouri River Task Force said he's concerned that designating the Missouri Breaks as a national monument could harm the local economy.
"(The task force's) major concern is the economics of counties along the Missouri Breaks, the Upper Missouri Breaks," Blaine County Commissioner Art Kleinjan said today.
Kleinjan was elected chairman of the task force Wednesday.
The task force was created by Gov. Judy Martz after U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton asked several state officials in March to suggest boundary and other changes to national monuments. The request was seen as a possible first step toward scaling back the more than 3 million acres that President Clinton put under protection during his last two years in office.
Kleinjan said some of his concerns are possible future restrictions on cattle grazing and natural gas production. The current temporary plan for grazing states that all existing leases will be honored, but that leaves questions about renewing the leases when they end or transferring them if property is sold, he said.
"Just the word existing' leaves some doubt in my mind about future plans," he said.
Kleinjan said the Breaks contain significant gas deposits, and with current demand producers are interested in exploring the region.
"That's some of the issues that I'd like to see come out of this task force," he said.
"I have talked to county commissioners and ranchers in (other) areas that have been designated and they have been seriously impacted," he said.
The Friends of the Missouri Breaks Monument organization is holding a press conference at the Hawthorn Inn and Suites in Great Falls at noon Tuesday. Stephen Ambrose, author of "Undaunted Courage," a book detailing the journey of Lewis and Clark, and other advocates of monument status for the Upper Missouri Breaks, will present information about the National Monument Fairness Act, which the U.S. House is scheduled to debate Tuesday.
The bill would require congressional ratification of national monuments within two years of their designation, and would likely be used to rescind the designation of the Breaks, a press release from the organization says.
Kleinjan said both sides of the debate over the monument status of the Breaks may have valid concerns, but the actual impact isn't known either way yet. He said the task force needs to examine all concerns to decide what the best action would be.
"We may be scared of what we don't know on both sides of the fence," he said. "I cant stress enough that we certainly want to work with everybody. I've got to go into this open-minded."
Kleinjan said the task force broke its examination of the issues into three main categories, so public input would be grouped and sorted under those topics. The categories are: What existing uses should be allowed; what are the impacts with regard to recreation and tourism, and what areas might need additional protection; and what is the appropriate size of the monument and how should access to private land within the monument boundaries be addressed?
The task force has set three public meetings.
Kleinjan said it will accept public comments at each meeting from 10 a.m. to noon, then go into a work session for the afternoon. He said the public can attend the work sessions but cannot make comment at that time unless the task force requests it.
The first meeting, dealing with existing uses, will be held July 31 at the Chinook Motor Inn. A meeting dealing with recreation/tourism and unique areas will be held Aug. 1 at the Great Falls Interpretative Center, and one on boundary size and access will be held Aug. 2 at Winifred High School.
The task force will accept written public comment until Aug. 10.
Kleinjan said the task force will give its comments and recommendations to Martz on Aug. 15.
Comments should be mailed to Gov. Judy Martz, State Capitol, P.O. Box 200801, Helena, MT 59620.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.