By Tim Leeds
Supporters of the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument said they are trying to dispell some myths about monument status for the Missouri Breaks because of the current review of that status.
"Just in the last couple of months we've gotten going," Wendy Whitehorn of Dutton, a member of Friends of the Missouri Breaks Monument, said this week. Dutton added that the group was organized in response to what members consider threats to the monument status, including Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton's request that state officials gather new public comment about sites President Clinton designated as monuments in his last few weeks in office. Norton asked Montana Gov. Judy Martz and other state officials in March to suggest boundary and other changes to the Missouri Breaks monument.
The group coordinated a press conference in Great Falls on July 17, the same day a congressional subcommittee began debating a bill to amend the Antiquities Act of 1906, the act Clinton used to designate the monuments, including the Upper Missouri Breaks Monument.
Hugo Tureck said he doesn't believe the bill has enough support to pass. Tureck, who was chairman of the Central Montana Resource Advisory Council when it collected public input in 1999 and 2000 about what should be done to protect the breaks, said his main concern is that a rider revoking the monument could be attached to some other bill in Congress. He added that Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., has told him he would not add such a rider, but Friends of the Missiouri Breaks has not gotten such a commitment from Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont.
Rehberg and Burns have both spoken critically of the monument designation for the Breaks. Sen. Max Baucus, the lone Democrat in Montana's congressional delegation, has spoken in support of the monument designation.
Martz has appointed a task force to collect public input about the impact of designating the Breaks a national monument. The task force will hold meetings in Chinook on Tuesday at the Chinook Motor Inn to discuss existing uses of the Breaks; at the Great Falls Interpretative Center on Wednesday on recreation and tourism in the Breaks; and Thursday at Winifred High School on boundary size and access.
The task force appointed Blaine County Commissioner Art Kleinjan as its chairman. Kleinjan said the task force will collect public comment, with written copies requested, from 10 a.m. to noon each day and will enter a work session for the rest of the day.
Whitehorn said the times and locations of the meetings will make it difficult for many Montanans to attend. She said, for example, many who would like to attend will have a hard time getting to Winifred at 10 a.m.
"That bothers me a great deal," she added.
Kleinjan said he realizes the timing is inconvenient, but Martz wants the collection of information done by Aug. 15.
"That didn't leave us much time, just wasn't a lot of time," he said.
He said he doesn't know what will come out of the meetings until the task force goes through the hearing process.
"I do know a lot of people would like to see their private land withdrawn," he added.
Prior to the monument designation, about 130,000 acres of federal, state and private land along the Breaks had "wild and scenic river" status. The monument includes that land plus an additional 465,000 acres. The new boundaries include about 50,000 additional acres of private land. The wild and scenic river area contained about 30,000 acres of private land.
Gary Slagel, acting monument manager with the federal Burea of Land Management field office in Lewistown, said the monument designation won't impact private landowners in any way.
"Their rights on private land are just exactly what they were before the designation," Slagel said.
The presidential proclamation designating the area a national monument states that any land in the proposed monument not owned by the United States shall be reserved as part of the monument if the United States acquires it. Tureck said that only happens if the owner is willing to sell the land and the government is willing to buy it.
He added that a primary focus of most people who testified to the Resource Advisory Council was that the existing uses of the land be maintained, including ranching. That was a primary consideration of the council, he said, and was included in the BLM's interim management plan for the monument.
Kleinjan said that while that may be true, monument designation will affect the resale value of ranches. If he had the cash to buy a ranch, he certainly wouldn't use it to buy property in a monument, he added.
Opponents of the monument have said they are concerned with a potential loss of leases for grazing cattle in the area. Slagel and Tureck both said the monument status won't affect grazing leases in the monument. The BLM will continue to administer leases as it did before the area became a monument and is it does in areas not within monuments, they said.
Kleinjan said a main concern is the loss of new exploration for natural gas in the region. The monument status only allows for exploration and drilling on existing leases in the area.
Mark Good of Great Falls, central field coordinator for the Montana Wilderness Association, said there are oil and gas leases in about 15 percent of the monument already that can continue exploration and production. The monument designation will simply "bring some finality to some of the development," he said.
Good added that there are a lot of dry holes and few producing wells in the area designated a monument. He said the area doesn't seem to have the potential for high petroleum production, especially compared with other regions such as the Tiger Ridge area in the Bear Paw Mountains.
"It's unlikely this is going to be a bonanza," he said.
Kleinjan disagrees, saying he thinks there is the potential for good production there. He cited a report from the U.S. Department of the Interior showing that Ocean Energy paid more than $61,000 in royalties and leases to the state from production in the area, and said that indicates to him there are petroleum production possibilities there.
Ed Spinler of Havre, a Montana Wilderness Association member, said increased tourism created by the monument designation will be more beneficial than increased petroleum production. He said gas wells only produce for a limited time, while tourism will mean continuing use that will increase as time goes on.
Jim Brenna, another Wildlife Association member from Havre, also said the monument would help tourism. He said another thing that troubles him is that western Montana seems to have all the pristine, protected areas, and he would like to see this for eastern Montana.
"It's just a fantastic opportunity," he added.
Rebecca Hargis of Havre, a member of the Friends of the Missouri Breaks Monument and the Wilderness Association, said the Breaks have a lot of historical significance.