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Know the West

Controversy lingers at Missouri Breaks in Montana

Ranchers, landowners, environmentalists still disagree over the designation.


On a blustery April morning in north-central Montana, a dozen volunteers, including me, scramble from three jet boats onto a grassy bank. Five guys from the Bureau of Land Management just gunned us 20 miles up the Missouri River, through a remote canyon of sandstone cliffs and sagebrush bluffs. Now we grab shovels and buckets and get to work, planting cottonwoods.

The cottonwoods on this stretch of the river “have one foot in the grave and one foot on a banana peel,” explains Chad Krause, a young BLM hydrologist. Most are over 100 years old, and there are very few younger trees to replace them. Several possible culprits have been cited — upstream dams have reduced seed-propagating floods; winter ice flows are scouring the banks; and grazing cattle are chomping the young trees. But the impacts are clear: The BLM has warned that in a few decades, river floaters might have to start packing their own shade with them, because there won’t be enough trees left to cool their campsites.

This 149-mile stretch of river, plus 585 square miles of adjacent BLM land where the northern plains crumble into a fractal-like network of coulees and canyons, is the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. And that 2001 monument designation, I’m told, is the reason the cottonwoods are now being planted.

President Clinton’s proclamation, in a few pages of sweeping prose, describes the “objects” this monument is to protect: plentiful bighorn sheep and other wildlife, traces of history left by numerous Native tribes and the Lewis and Clark expedition, riverside cottonwood ecosystems and more. The proclamation also laid out the terms of protection, including withdrawal of all monument lands from future oil and gas leasing and a new travel plan to manage motorized traffic. But — in a nod to local input — it permitted continued grazing and hunting.

The BLM’s management plan, released in 2008, made so few changes that it even garnered the support of the Missouri River Stewards, a local group of ranchers who had opposed the monument designation. But it drew opposition from the Friends of the Missouri Breaks Monument — the nonprofit group organizing the cottonwood planting — and other conservation groups, who argued that the plan was too lax on roads and airstrips. As a result of their lawsuit, settled in 2013, the BLM is moving ahead with plans to close about 200 miles of backcountry routes.

But tensions remain. Even though the proclamation allows grazing, the Western Watersheds Project, an aggressive grazing reform group, argues that the BLM actually has authority to restrict it in order to protect monument “objects,” like the threatened cottonwoods. That group’s lawsuit is ongoing.

Glenn Monahan, who has guided this stretch of river for 20 years, has amassed evidence that livestock are primarily responsible for the decline of the cottonwoods and other vegetation. He also thinks livestock have caused a drop in the number of river visitors, from roughly 5,000 in 2009 to 3,000 in 2014. He’s counted as many as 1,360 cattle along a 46-mile stretch of river popular with floaters, and he and his guides carry shovels for scraping cow patties from campsites. Although the BLM says it plans to erect fences around some campsites, Monahan thinks the agency should go much further, removing cattle from the river entirely. “This is now a national monument,” he says, “and we need to start asking, ‘What is the highest use of this land?’ ”

This is why the 120-odd landowners within the monument still largely resent the monument — not for what it’s done, but for what it might do. Ron Poertner, a leader of the Missouri River Stewards, sees the Western Watersheds Project lawsuit as an ominous sign of things to come: increased public attention and scrutiny over local grazing practices. “We’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop,” he says.

Hugo Tureck, who has a ranch on the edge of the Breaks and helped found the Friends in 2001, told me that he sees the monument staying pretty much the way it is, maybe with slightly stricter grazing in the future. But one thing has changed: “(This area) now has a stage presence that it never had before,” he says. “That’s what a national monument means.”

Back on the grassy bank, we place each slender cottonwood cutting in a hole along with a watering pipe, tamp in a slurry of dirt, river water and rooting hormone, and erect a ring of wire fence to keep out cows. Dark clouds build over the white cliffs, spit rain and then clear to blue sky. I ask Rick Pokorny, who was born and raised in the Breaks, why he’s here. “To plant trees, because they need to be planted,” he says.

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John Podesta: Legacy maker