By HDN Editorial Board
U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg was here recently to make a case for his new bill to eliminate private land from within the boundaries of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.
About 80,000 acres of private land are within the current boundaries, which were established by President Clinton just before he left office. That doesn't mean the land is part of the monument. What it means is that if the landowners want to sell the land to the government, it wouldn't take an act of Congress for the land to become part of the monument.
If Rehberg's bill were to become law, it would take an act of Congress for that land to become part of the monument if the landowner were ever to sell it to the government.
Rehberg says he has several reasons for introducing this bill.
One is that the landowners were given no warning that their land would be included, particularly those people whose land sits right up against the boundaries. The lines were drawn sloppily, Rehberg argues, and should have avoided that private land.
He also argues that including the private land will open that land up to vandalism and trespass. He talked with great emotion about how his own property near Billings had been vandalized.
Also, he said, he wants to eliminate any worries the landowners may have that the federal government would somehow try to restrict the landowners' use of their own property.
We can see some shortcomings in his thinking.
Rehberg is assuming the lines were quickly and sloppily drawn but he hasn't made any effort to verify this assumption. Perhaps a check with the Bureau of Land Management would prove otherwise.
Rehberg is assuming that eliminating private land from within the boundaries will somehow keep recreationists from inadvertently straying onto private property. Unless the private land is clearly marked as private, with fencing or some other boundary, that is bound to happen with or without Rehberg's bill. And the congressman is wrong to think that recreationists pose a threat to landowners. Criminals might but recreationists won't.
Rehberg knows that the language creating the monument prohibits the government from changing the use of private land within the monument's boundaries. He says he doesn't want the landowners to have to worry about the rules of the game changing later on.
Rather than exacerbating people's fears, Rehberg should be reassuring the landowners that they have nothing to worry about.
Rehberg's efforts are well-intentioned but could have bad consequences for Montana. Why are we not embracing the monument, as recreationists and others around the country surely will? Plenty of attention is bound to be focused on this incredible natural showcase as the Corps of Discovery bicentennial approaches.
If Rehberg pushes this bill, attention will also be focused on divisiveness and distrust.