Hearing set on Breaks bill


Montana's Rep. Denny Rehberg is again working to redraw the boundary of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, at the request of people whose land is within the boundary.

Rehberg sponsored a bill on April 3 that would change the boundary to exclude nearly 81,000 acres of private land now reserved to become part of the monument if the government eventually acquires it. The House subcommittee on National Parks, Recreation and Public Lands is holding a hearing on the bill Tuesday.

Rehberg, a member of the House Resources Committee, said in a telephone interview Thursday that people whose land is within the boundary feel the government has put a cloud on their title to the land without paying for it and has compromised their private property rights.

"Why is it so hard to understand that these people don't want their land in that boundary?" Rehberg asked.

Matt Knox of Winifred, chair of the Missouri River Stewards organization, will testify in favor of the bill. Stewards secretary Ron Portner, also of Winifred, is traveling to Washington with Knox to attend the hearing.

Knox said Thursday that the landowners opposed to the monument have two major complaints. One is that they didn't know the boundary would be drawn around their land until after it happened.

"We went through the process without ever really seeing what the boundary would be or seeing a definitive proposal," he said. "We think it was a flawed public process."

The other complaint is that at some point in the future the government could put a high priority on acquiring the private land, Knox said. It could then try to pressure people into selling by making it more difficult to use the public and private land, possibly by adjusting cattle grazing lease requirements on public land or limiting access to private land, he said.

"They could make a willing seller," Knox said.

The monument is managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management. The BLM also managed the federal land before it was declared a monument.

Another concern is that if land is sold to the government, that would decrease the tax base for local schools, Knox said.

Hugo Tureck of Coffee Creek, vice chair of the Friends of the Missouri Breaks Monument, will testify against the bill.

Tureck, who testified against a virtually identical bill Rehberg sponsored in 2002, said his opposition is simple. The bill doesn't do anything to protect private property, he said.

Under the proclamation declaring the area a monument and the law used to declare it, the government can only regulate the use of federal land within the monument and that won't change under Rehberg's bill.

But the effect on the Missouri Breaks monument and other monuments and parks, many of which also contain private property within their boundaries, could be big, he added.

Private land was included in the boundaries so that land sold or traded to the government by a willing owner would automatically become part of the monument, Tureck said. If Rehberg's bill passes, it will take a congressional act or another presidential proclamation to make each transfer part of the monument, he said.

"This bill makes Congress micromanage all of these monuments," Tureck said. " And Congress can't get anything done now. Think of the extra work it's putting on Congress to buy this land."

The bill also would make it more difficult for landowners who want to sell their land to the government to do so because of the additional steps, he added.

The boundaries of the monument were selected to protect the geological and ecological systems within the boundary, as well as the bank-to-bank area of the river bottom, Tureck said. Other historical landmarks, such as part of the Nez Perce Trail followed by Chief Joseph and his band and outlaw Kid Curry's hideouts, are also in the area, many on private land, he said.

President Clinton designated the monument in January 2001, shortly before he left office.


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