By Tim Leeds
Efforts to create a management plan are proceeding for a controversial national monument in the Upper Missouri River Breaks.
The Bureau of Land Management has scheduled 11 public meetings to present information and collect ideas for a permanent plan to manage the resources of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.
"It's to go ahead and kind of define what the different stakeholders see as issues in this management plan," said Craig Flentie, spokesman for the BLM field office in Lewistown.
The meetings include sessions in Big Sandy on July 10, Havre on July 15, Chinook on July 16, and Cleveland on July 17.
President Clinton used the Antiquities Act of 1906 to proclaim about 377,000 acres of federal land in the Breaks a national monument in January 2001. He reserved about 41,000 acres of state land and about 80,000 acres of private land to become part of the monument if the federal government acquires title to it.
Some of the private landowners have protested the inclusion of their land within the monument boundaries. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., has introduced a bill to redefine the boundaries of the monument to exclude private land.
Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton said in a press release in April that although she has concerns about the creation of the monument, it is the department's job to create a management plan that serves the needs of people directly involved in the lands in and around the monument boundaries.
"I am challenging the Bureau of Land Management to make the planning process a model of how to involve the people who live and work closest to these monuments," she said.
The permanent plan is likely to resemble the interim plan for the monument, established in June 2001, Flentie said. BLM has been hearing about people's ideas for the area since the river corridor was proposed as a Wild and Scenic River area in the 1970s, he said. It received that designation in 1976.
"There may be an issue that comes like a bolt out of the sky. I'd be a little surprised when that happened," Flentie said.
The presidential proclamation creating the monoment specifically states that current uses like cattle grazing, hunting, fishing and hiking will continue, he said.
"The proclamation identifies all of those uses as valid uses. None of them will disappear," Flentie said.
The planning process will become more specific on several issues, like transportation, Flentie said. Access to private property will not be restricted, but what roads will stay open and how many roads are needed will probably be discussed, he said.
Trevis Butcher, one of the organizers of opposition to the monument, said he plans to attend the planning meetings if he can, but that they probably won't solve the problems the monument creates.
Butcher said he expects the federal government to restrict access and privileges on the monument to pressure landowners to sell their land to the government. He cited the creation of the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge as an example.
Landowners were told their privileges would continue on that federal land when the refuge was created, but within 10 years most landowner uses had disappeared, Butcher said.
It would have been better if the monument had not been created, Butcher added, but Rehberg's bill to remove the reserved private land is a step in the right direction.
"I think its not the total solution, but I'm extremely excited to see Denny take the part of Montanans' private property rights," he said.
Whether the private land is removed from the boundaries will not affect the management plan, Flentie said.
"Our management plan will address and is concerned only with public lands anyway," he said.
Rehberg said last week that one of his main concerns is that Clinton reserved the land with an executive order, without congressional debate and without contacting the landowners.
"I'm not an opponent to the monument. I'm an opponent to the process that allowed this to occur," he said.
Rehberg's bill would require congressional or presidential action to make private land part of the monument if the federal government purchases the land.
The landowners' concerns are valid, Rehberg said. Rights of landowners, like grazing leases and access, have been restricted on the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, he said. Clinton proclaimed that area a monument in 1996.
Dave Wolf, assistant manager of the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument, said the rights and privileges of private landowners have not been restricted there.
"Not a single change in grazing has occurred because of the monument designation," he said.
Grazing has been temporarily limited in some areas because of drought under rules that apply to all federal lands, Wolf said.
"It's just incredibly dry," he said.
An environmental group purchased some grazing allotments from landowners and requested the grazing be discontinued, he added.
Many ranchers voluntarily removed their cattle when the grass was used up, and most obeyed the BLM request to remove the cattle early, Wolf said. Three did not, and the BLM began rounding up and impounding 190 head of cattle in October 2000 after several requests were made to the owners, he said.
BLM is recommending closing some roads on the Escalante monument, but will not restrict access to any private land, Wolf said. The bureau cannot restrict that access, he said.
"It's not an issue that it can be done. It cannot be done," Wolf said.