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for people who care about the West

Bill would redraw the boundaries of national monument

But some Montana ranchers want to stay where they are


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.

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)