By Ross Markman and Tim Leeds
Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., has introduced a bill that would make the 81,000 acres of private land within the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument exempt from ever becoming part of the monument.
If passed by Congress, the bill would keep the acreage, much of which is ranchland, in the hands of the private property owners forever.
"Congressman Rehberg sees this as a private property issue," Dallas Lawrence, a Rehberg spokesman, said today.
The private property owners inside the boundaries and the commissioners from the counties the monument spans have said they want the property removed, Lawrence said.
"As far as Congressman Rehberg is concerned, that's all that matters," Lawrence said.
The Department of the Interior has said the state and private land inside the boundaries are not part of the monument, and are in no way affected by the designation.
Hugo Tureck, a farmer and rancher who lives 25 miles outside the monument, agreed. Tureck is the former chairman of the Bureau of Land Management Resource Advisory Council, the group that held the first meetings to determine the fate of the Missouri Breaks in 1999.
"Nobody's private property rights have ever been violated by the federal government (in the area that's now the monument) for the last 26 years," he said. "There's a history of how private property has been treated. No restrictions have been placed on private property."
In January 2001, President Clinton designated the Missouri Breaks as a national monument. He reserved the 81,000 acres of private land, and about 40,000 acres of state land, to automatically become part of the monument if the U.S. government acquires title to it.
Twenty-four years earlier, Tureck said, Congress designated 35,860 acres of private land in the Breaks as a Wild and Scenic River. The land was included in the monument, but Tureck noted, it actually supersedes the monument designation because it was an act of Congress.
The landowners have expressed concern to Rehberg that the only reason their land was included was because the U.S. government wants the land, Lawrence said. The landowners are afraid the goverment will change their use of the federal land, making their own land worth less to them, he said.
Tureck said history proves otherwise.
"We can't document one case where landowners were forced to sell. When you ask the ranchers on the river questions about that, there are no examples," he said.
Most monuments, according to Tureck, have private land within their boundaries. The snag, he said, is timing.
"The problem is monuments that are created to protect land for future ownership are done when there's already a checkerboard of private ownerships," he said.
"It's my understanding that if somebody wanted to sell his land to the federal government, it could become part of the monument without an act of Congress," Tureck added.
One reason the landowners are upset is because no one asked them whether their land should be included, Lawrence said.
Prior to the area being named a monument, landowners in 1999 testified before the RAC. A significant number of ranchers, Tureck said, were against any new designations for the Missouri Breaks.
Tureck said he wonders if the ranchers' concerns are with losing grazing space. But, he said, removing private property from the monument umbrella is not going to protect one's grazing land.
"I really don't think they have a gripe. What advantages do they have not being in the monument?" Tureck said. "I can see none."