By Tim Leeds
The governor's task force on the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument on Tuesday finalized its recommendation to substantially reduce the size of the monument.
Members of the task force said they were concerned about protecting the rights of private landowners whose property lies within the boundaries designated by President Clinton when he created the national monument in January.
Proponents of the monument said the task force appointed by Gov. Judy Martz was stacked against it.
Hugo Tureck said all members of the group had taken a public stance against the monument before they were selected.
"If they had only had a group of conservationists on there, people would be outraged," Mark Good of the Montana Wilderness Association said.
Martz will forward the recommendation to U.S. Secretary of Interior Gale Norton, who had asked officials in states were Clinton designated monuments to make sure local leaders had been consulted about the designations.
Todd O'Hair, Martz's natural resource policy adviser, said Tuesday he believes President Bush can change the boundaries with a proclamation but said the Interior Department is unsure how hard Bush is willing to pursue new monument boundaries.
According to the federal Bureau of Land Management, which is in charge of the Breaks monument, changes to the boundaries would be subject to congressional approval.
The task force made a preliminary decision to shrink the monument a week ago when it met in Fort Benton. The task force said the monument should cover the same area designated in 1976 as a wild and scenic river, including the river corridor from Fort Belknap to Robinson Bridge.
The boundaries of the monument encompass about 495,000 acres, with about 377,000 acres of land managed by the Bureau of Land Management designated as the monument. About 80,000 acres of private land and 40,000 acres of state land are within the boundaries.
The BLM has said that only land actually designated as a monument will be managed by the agency, and that private landowners will retain the rights they currently have.
The task force had yet to read the 1,700 letters sent to Martz as written testimony on the monument. According to the governor's office, the letters favor the monument by a ratio of 2-to-1.
Task force member Carl Seilstad, who is a Fergus County commissioner, said after the meeting Tuesday that about 100 of the letters in support of the monument were form letters, and should be counted as just one letter. He said many others were form letters with just a few words changed, and should also be discounted.
He added that about half of the letters in support were from western Montanans and that most of the writers who live near the monument opposed the designation.
Task force member Bill Thomas, a state House member from Hobbs, said many of the letters supported the monument, but didn't say what should be done with the boundaries.
Wendy Whitehorn of the Friends of the Missouri Breaks Monument said after the task force meeting that writers who supported the monument were also endorsing the current boundaries.
During Tuesday's discussion, task force members adopted a second, alternative recommendation for Norton. It said that if the boundaries are reduced, that all private land be excluded from within the boundaries unless the owner requests otherwise.
Task force member Harvey Worall, a Chouteau county commissioner, said a major theme he heard during the task force's work was concern from private landowners about what could happen to their rights in the future because of the monument designation.
Task force member Matt McCann, a state House member from Harlem, said he would feel much better about the monument if the private landowners were allowed to choose whether their land was inside the boundaries.
McCann said he thinks Clinton overreached the intent of the Antiquities Act of 1906, which Clinton used to designate the monument. He said the act is intended to protect sites of historical and scientific interest, and the area designated was too large to fit that intent.
Lou Hagener of the BLM said Clinton designated the area as a landscape monument, and the boundaries of the monument are a logical line around the landforms that qualify under the Antiquities Act as areas of scientific and interest to be protected.
Dave Mari, BLM manager at the Lewistown field office, added that the private land also was included so that if the government acquires title from a willing seller, it will automatically become part of the monument.
Tureck, of Friends of the Monument, said that if opponents feel the Antiquities Act has been violated, the only place to take that is to the courts.
"We are a nation of laws, not of individuals," he said.
The governor's aide, O'Hair, said Martz will review the task force's recommendations and decide what to forward to Norton. He said the task force's recommendations will carry great weight with the governor.