WINIFRED, MONTANA — The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in north-central Montana isn’t a place for the faint of heart. If the mosquitoes don’t get you, the buffalo gnats will. The relentless summer sun blisters your skin, while prickly pear cacti and rattlesnakes lurk in the grass. Only a few paved roads lead to the monument’s gateways; the roads that actually cross it are gravel at best.
But the area offers many rewards for the adventurer. The 150-mile stretch of federally protected “wild and scenic” river from Fort Benton to Kipps Landing contains homesteader cabins, Indian buffalo jumps, and campsites that were used by explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in the early years of the 19th century. Deep arroyos cut through the high desert plateau, exposing colored strata of sand and rock.
This river corridor is now part of a national monument run by the Bureau of Land Management, which is charged with protecting its natural and historical resources. But its operation remains as thorny as the land itself. About 21 percent of the land within the monument’s borders is owned by private individuals, with most of it concentrated in the fertile bottomlands. The BLM has no legal authority over these private lands and says it will only buy property from willing sellers. Still, many Breaks residents, long suspicious of federal authority, fear the agency will pressure them into selling off their land.
Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg, R, has responded by crafting a bill that would “clarify” the monument boundaries to exclude all private lands. “These landowners woke up one day to find their land was now part of a national monument,” says Rehberg spokesman Brad Keena. “The federal government had no right to do what it did.”
In Utah, on the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, some ranchers have accepted the BLM’s new conservation mandate, albeit grudgingly, and sold their public-land grazing rights on the monument to an environmental group (HCN, 4/14/03: Change comes slowly to the Escalante Country). Like the Escalante ranchers, some landowners on the Missouri Breaks would like to sell out and move on with their lives and businesses.
Rehberg’s bill, however, would make it more difficult for locals to sell their land to the government. While the legislator says he’s only trying to protect private property rights, some landowners believe his bill would do exactly the opposite.
A backwater is thrown into the spotlight
Local distrust of the federal government dates back at least as far as 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved a reservoir project at Fort Peck, about 200 miles downstream from Fort Benton. Works Progress Administration crews completed the world’s largest earthen dam in 1940. But in the process, they drove out hundreds of families, and flooded tens of thousands of acres of river-bottom land.
After the 1950s, the area’s population experienced a slow but steady decline. Although many farmers expanded their holdings during the 1980s, low beef and wheat prices in the 1990s drove them into bankruptcy. With the hard times, festering resentment for all things federal rose to the surface.
In the mid-1990s, a group of central Montana ranchers who dubbed themselves the “Freemen” caught the attention of the FBI when they began circulating millions of dollars in bogus checks and money orders, and also threatened the life of a federal judge. For almost three months in spring 1996, about 20 armed Freemen kept FBI agents sitting outside the gateposts of a ranch near Jordan, Mont., about 30 miles south of the Fort Peck Reservoir, before surrendering.
The rich history of the Breaks country met the larger world when historian Stephen Ambrose published his 1996 bestseller Undaunted Courage, about the Lewis and Clark expedition, and Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan produced a 1997 documentary on the duo. History buffs, adventurers and tourists suddenly hungered to taste the Breaks. The number of river floaters doubled, while other adventurers explored the Breaks by auto, bicycle, horseback or foot.
Even President Clinton caught the Lewis and Clark bug, watching the documentary with Burns at the White House. In January 2001, in his last days in office, Clinton designated 380,000 acres bordering the river as the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. Of 5,700 comments collected during BLM scoping sessions, 98 percent supported the monument, according to an analysis by the Montana Wilderness Association.
Even many Breaks residents have come to see the monument as a potential boon. Agriculture will never be able to support the area as it did in the past, says John Lepley, executive director of two museums in the verdant riverside town of Fort Benton. “We need to do something, or our little towns will dry up and be gone. Tourism is our one and only way to save ourselves.”
Yet others see the monument as another Fort Peck Dam — a big federal project intended to drive them out of their homes.
Money may be in recreation, not ranching
As rancher Matt Knox eases his pickup down a two-rut road over his property, about 20 miles outside the dusty town of Winifred, he smiles with satisfaction at fields of lush-leaved winter wheat — the first good crop after four years of persistent drought.
“We love it here,” he says. “It’s the best place in the world to raise kids.” Many Breaks ranchers, like the 41-year-old Knox, have personal and financial interests in the new monument. Knox leases 18,000 acres of monument land to help feed his 300-odd cows, and the boundary of the monument crosses part of his deeded property. Knox worries that the monument designation may affect his grazing privileges and his ability to drill for oil and gas on his property. But his biggest concern is that the federal government will buy up other private ranches and turn Winifred into a ghost town.