About 81,000 acres of private lands, owned by 94 landowners, lie within the monument boundaries, according to property-tax maps. In some places, the monument boundary follows certain natural formations, such as watersheds and coulees. In others, it seems to travel a haphazard route, as it does across the Knox land.

The monument boundaries were drawn to contain significant historic, cultural or scenic sites, according to BLM officials, such as the route the Nez Perce Indians followed during their attempted escape from the U.S. Army in 1877, the trail taken by bullwhackers (men who drove oxen-pulled supply wagons) out of Fort Benton, and the hideout of the outlaw Kid Curry.

It is no secret that the BLM would like to purchase these and other inholdings eventually, but the agency is not trying to drum up business, says monument manager Gary Slagel. “Private properties can be managed as the landowners like. They can be sold, traded and handed down to their heirs,” he says.

If a landowner chooses to sell land within the monument’s boundaries to the government, that parcel automatically comes under monument jurisdiction. And if the rising land values around the nearby Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge are any indication, ranchers looking to sell are likely to make more money than they would have without the Breaks monument.

When private landowners approach the refuge, says refuge manager Mike Hedrick, an appraiser determines the fair market value. “The price is based on highest and best use. Within the refuge, that tends to be recreational value as opposed to agricultural values.”

The going recreational value runs from $300 an acre to $400 an acre — more than double the agricultural value. Any tax base lost by the county is made up by the federal Payments in Lieu of Taxes program, which pays into the county’s general fund.

A “small group of extremists”?

Rep. Rehberg’s bill, H.R. 1629, states that the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument “shall not include within its boundaries any privately owned property.” Rehberg, a member of the House Resources Committee, introduced the bill in April after receiving a petition from 330 local residents. “This is an example of the continued federal encroachment on private property,” says Keena, the congressman’s spokesman.

But the bill, which is only two sentences long, would affect monument managers’ ability to buy private inholdings without much red tape, and perhaps have an even greater impact on the way in which any new acquisitions would be managed. As it stands, the BLM can buy inholdings using funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. If the bill passes, the agency would either have to ask Congress for money for any future monument acquisitions or arrange trades for BLM land outside the monument — both tedious and time-consuming processes.

Still, BLM officials tepidly support the bill. “If it makes the landowner more comfortable with the monument, then it’s a good thing,” monument manager Slagel says.

But others call Rehberg’s effort a waste of time, since private property rights are already protected. In fact, Hugo Tureck, a rancher who chaired the local BLM advisory council, says the bill may actually hinder landowners from getting a good deal from the government. “Ranchers should have the right to sell their property to whomever they want,” he says.

A recent editorial in the Great Falls Tribune made the same property-rights argument against the bill, and the Havre Daily News recently accused Rehberg of “pandering to a small group of suspicious people as well as this country’s private-property extremists.”

Neither Keena nor BLM officials could cite any past circumstance in which the BLM issued an executive order that affected management of private lands. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen in the future, Keena asserts. “The real test would be if someone wanted to build a big hotel and resort in there down by the river. Then we’d see what the BLM would come up with,” he says.

That type of development would be fine with the BLM, Slagel says. “They can do whatever they want on their private land.”

Rehberg’s bill now sits in committee, and may not make it to the floor of the house before next year.

The author writes from Missoula, Montana.

Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg 202-225-5687 (D.C. office); 406-538-7461 (Helena office)
Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument 406-538-1950 (BLM Lewiston, Montana, field office)