Last spring, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt got to have some fun. He took a raft trip on Montana's Missouri River Breaks accompanied by author and filmmaker Dayton Duncan and historian Stephen Ambrose, author of Undaunted Courage, a recent and highly popular telling of the Lewis and Clark saga.
They floated past irrigated bottomlands and
sage-dotted slopes, broad floodplains interspersed with high canyon
walls, and eerie sandstone sculpted by water and wind. They may
have sighted some of the deer and pronghorn antelope that feed in
the croplands, and they may have spotted one of the bighorn sheep
that perch on canyon overlooks.
Shortly after the
trip, Babbitt said he was considering an unusual "segregation"
order for part of the river and about 90,000 surrounding BLM-owned
acres along the existing Wild and Scenic river corridor east of
Great Falls. The temporary order was needed, he said, to freeze
development in the area, especially new mining activity, and to
help managers prepare for an expected onslaught of visitors during
the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition (HCN,
Babbitt's plan was met with wails of
protest from area landowners and some local government officials.
Many are still bitter over the 1976 designation of a 149-mile Wild
and Scenic river corridor on the Missouri, and they argued that the
federal government exerts enough control on the river and its
adjacent lands. Opponents also feared the order was a first step
toward a new national monument or national park along the
Faced with growing opposition, Babbitt
changed tack in July and withdrew the proposal. While he hasn't
dismissed the idea of a national monument, he has distanced himself
from talk of creating a new national park in the area, an action
backed by Duncan and Ambrose, among others.
he's pushing for the creation of a new and expanded National
Conservation Area along the banks of the Missouri, where, he says,
existing land uses such as grazing and farming can coexist with
recreation. He promises the federal government will be a good
neighbor to those whose families have toiled on their land for the
past few generations.
"My principal concern ...
(is) to provide more protection to the on-the-ground resources,"
Babbitt said in October. "We can do this while celebrating and
continuing uses that are compatible with the protection
While details are not yet fleshed
out, Babbitt has asked the Central Montana Resource Advisory
Council, which provides guidance to the Bureau of Land Management,
to hold public hearings and come up with guidelines by the end of
the year. He's asked the 15-member panel to develop proposals for
managing the expected swarms of Lewis and Clark buffs. Also in the
works is a potential permit system for river users, which would be
a first for Missouri River floaters.
controversy seems to have died down for now, and the committee is
working overtime to meet Babbitt's year-end deadline. "Overall, I
think the process is working," says Great Falls conservationist Jim
McDermand, who serves on the committee. "I think most everyone
wants to keep (the river) as it is and protect it from the hordes
of tourists who are coming."
Ron Selden writes from