By Tim Leeds
Federal Bureau of Land Management state director Mat Millenbach said the worries of landowners near the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument are puzzling.
"This concern is hard for us to understand," he said in an interview Tuesday. " It's a hard one to get (our) arms around."
Millenbach was in Havre as part of a tour of BLM offices in the state. He is retiring May 3, after two years of heading the Montana office.
Millenbach said the two biggest issues facing the state BLM office in the near future are development of a permanent management plan for the monument and energy development on public lands.
The Upper Breaks were designated a monument by President Clinton during his last week in office. The monument includes about 377,000 acres of federal land, but the boundaries are also drawn around 40,000 acres of state land and 80,000 acres of private land.
Most of the landowners whose land is inside the boundaries have said they want the boundaries changed. Gov. Judy Martz said in October that she will press Congress to exclude the private land from the boundaries.
U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said in a press release last month that Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton was considering reclassifying the private land administratively.
The concern about the private land inside the monument boundaries is puzzling, Millenbach said, because the boundaries do nothing to private or state land except automatically make it part of the monument if the owner gives or sells the land to the U.S. government.
"The designation only affects public lands," he said. "It doesn't affect private land."
Millenbach said he thinks the landowners are concerned that the government will somehow influence use of their land.
He pointed out that 40,000 of the 80,000 private acres have been within the boundaries of the Missouri Breaks Wild and Scenic River area for 25 years, and the monument designation is no different.
The presidential proclamation designating the area a monument says current uses will continue, Millenbach said.
"The basic idea of the monument is pretty much to preserve the status quo," he said.
Some of the concerns people have raised are losing their cattle grazing leases, losing access to their land, and loss of potential energy development on the land. Millenbach said one of the complaints he has heard most is that campers will trespass on private land.
Two of the complaints are specifically covered in the presidential proclamation. It says development of existing energy leases on the public land will continue but that new leases will not be allowed on public land. Millenbach said BLM is evaluating nine applications to start drilling. Three of the applications are on BLM land outside the boundaries of the monument and six are inside the boundaries.
Millenbach said the monument designation won't have much impact on BLM's decisions on the applications. If done properly, he said, natural gas wells aren't much of a detriment to the environment. The wells on the monument are well-managed, he said.
The proclamation also states that grazing on the monument will continue under BLM management. However, Millenbach said a watershed analysis being done now could affect 20 grazing leases on the monument.
The analysis is a standard procedure for all BLM land to determine if environmental standards are being met.
If the standards are met, there is no reason to change, he said. If not, changes need to be made, such as reducing the number of leases allowed, changing livestock watering systems or putting in fences.
"It doesn't matter whether it's in a monument or not," he said.
Access is another issue. The BLM signed off on a plan that allows vehicles on the monument to use only existing roads and trails, and eventually only designated roads and trails.
However, access to private land within the boundaries will continue as is, he said.
The bureau is in the process of establishing a staff to create a permanent management plan for the monument. The process will include gathering public comment on what the management should be. BLM collected public comment in designing the interim management plan, and former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and the BLM Central Montana Resource Advisory Council also collected public comment before the monument was designated.
Millenbach said the process to create a permanent management plan will include collecting comments about what the plan should do, doing a resource inventory to see what the current uses are and what needs to be protected, and then presenting some alternatives of what the plan should do.
For example, he said, the alternatives for off-road use could range from making the monument a wilderness area with no vehicle access to making it highly developed, with roads, boat ramps and campsites.
Millenbach said he doesn't expect the alternatives to go to either extreme. The main goal will be to preserve existing uses, he said.
He said he hopes future public meetings on the plan don't get bogged down in arguments over the boundaries.
"If we could somehow change this dialogue I think we'd be better off," he said.
The other major issue facing the BLM in Montana is the Bush administration's attempts to increase energy and mineral development on public land, Millenbach said.
BLM is aggressively pursuing a program to begin drilling for coal-bed methane in the south-eastern part of Montana, he said. The bureau has an environmental impact statement about that subject on file for public comment until May 15.
A push to develop areas of the Rocky Mountain Front west of Great Falls raises different problems, including potential damage to grizzly bear and big game habitat. Any drilling in that area would have to deal with those and other issues, he said.
"That's going to be a pretty tall order," he added.
Millenbach, who has been with BLM for more than 30 years, said he decided to retire to spend more time with his family, including his grandchildren.
Retirement will also give him the opportunity to use the incredible camping and nature sites he has found while working with the bureau.