By Tim Leeds
The simmering pot of emotions arising from the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument may be about to boil over again.
U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., sent a letter Tuesday to Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton asking that the department issue a map clarifying the boundaries of the monument. Rehberg said the current boundaries violate a section of the Antiquities Act of 1906 that states the president may declare areas that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the federal government to be national monuments.
Rehberg wrote, "A boundary clarification is necessary because the current boundary is in violation of both the letter and spirit of the Antiquities Act of 1906 with respect to private land located within the external boundary of the monument."
Erik Iverson, Rehberg's chief of staff, said Thursday that when the boundaries were drawn, President Clinton and Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbit drew a line that included land the government would like to manage but didn't yet own.
"We're saying, OK, wait a second here that's not fair to private property owners,'" he said. " What we're asking (the Department of the Interior) to do is redraw that line."
Iverson said the private land never should have been included.
"The stuff on the periphery is just sloppy work," he said. "With all due respect, (Rehberg's) just not sure that's how the government should do business."
Iverson said the department has indicated it probably can adjust the boundaries around the private land that is not actually part of the monument, but is inside the boundaries.
John Wright, a spokesman for the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., said Wednesday that the department doesn't have the authority to change the boundaries of the monument. That would have to be done by congressional action or by a presidential proclamation, he said.
He said he didn't know if the department could do what Rehberg is asking it to.
Wright also said the monument designation doesn't have a direct impact on the private land.
"Private lands are not a part of the monument even though they are within the boundaries of the monument," Wright said. "The Antiquities Act does not apply to private land."
Others have said including the private land inside the boundaries is not harmful, but necessary.
David Mari, director of the BLM Lewistown Field Office, said the boundaries were drawn to include all geographic and ecological formations that make up the Upper Missouri Breaks.
"That doesn't respect public or private land configuration," he said.
The reason the private and state land was included, Mari said, was so that if the owner decided to sell it to the federal government, it would become part of the monument without needing another presidential proclamation or congressional action.
Molly McUsic, former legal counselor to Babbit, said in an interview in November that the boundaries of most monuments designated in the West include private land because of the pattern of land ownership.
"You just can't draw a boundary around all of the state and private land the ecological and historic site includes. It's hard to draw a boundary without that land," McUsic said.
Rehberg has indicated he wants to sponsor a bill to remove the private land from inside the boundaries. In his letter to Norton, he says he hopes the department can resolve the matter administratively instead.
President Clinton declared the area a national monument in January 2001. The boundaries of the monument included about 377,000 acres of federal land, 40,000 acres of state land and 80,000 acres of private land. The Bureau of Land Management, which administered the federal land before it was declared a monument, was designated the monument manager.
Gov. Judy Martz appointed a task force last fall to find out what local views were about the monument designation. Many landowners with property inside the boundaries of the monument testified that they wanted their land taken out.
In addition to the lines quoted by Rehberg, the Antiquities Act states that the president can reserve land not owned by the government that may be relinquished to the government. That land automatically becomes part of the monument if the government obtains ownership of it.