Montana's Missouri Breaks: Undaunted Stewards

The area is known simply as the breaks. It's a rugged, remote slice of north-central Montana cradling the upper reaches of the Missouri River as it zig zags through the badlands. By most assessments, the breaks have changed little since Lewis and Clark ventured into this frontier nearly 200 years ago. By design, their journey (see sidebar on page 19) opened a growing country's eyes to the vast potential

The area is known simply as “the breaks.” It's a rugged, remote slice of north-central Montana cradling the upper reaches of the Missouri River as it zig zags through the badlands. By most assessments, the breaks have changed little since Lewis and Clark ventured into this frontier nearly 200 years ago.

By design, their journey (see sidebar on page 19) opened a growing country's eyes to the vast potential this and other places in the West held for American expansion.

Over the decades, scores of ranching families have grown into the fabric of the breaks. They have stewarded the land, water and wildlife — working with government land managers assigned to oversee the public resources that characterize the area. For nearly 20 years though, there's been an undercurrent of resentment over the designation of a 149-mile stretch of the Missouri River as “Wild and Scenic.”

Public interest in the breaks intensified after publication of historian Stephen Ambrose's book “Undaunted Courage” — one of the more popular chronicles of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Then in 1999, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt floated through the river breaks with Ambrose, Montana Sen. Max Baucus and a cadre of environmental activists. There was no question Babbitt wanted the area preserved.

So last January, President Clinton, using his powers under the U.S. Antiquities Act, created the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.

Now, this designation and attention to the Lewis and Clark expedition's upcoming bicentennial is haunting people and communities that have become dependent on the resources in and around the breaks. Comprised mainly of land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the nearly half-million-acre monument also includes 40,000 acres of state land and 81,000 acres of privately owned land. It's estimated that ranchers graze nearly 10,000 head of cattle on land they own and/or lease within the monument boundaries.

So Where's My Hug?

“There's no question that, in time, this designation is going to affect our grazing uses as well as the value of our ranches,” says rancher Matt Knox, Winifred, MT. He and his wife Karla feel their lives will change in what is now designated as national monument area.

“It happened when we got the Wild and Scenic designation, and it will happen again,” Matt Knox says. “We think it's the next step in phasing out ranching in this area.”

The Knoxs have demonstrated that grazing systems on both their private land and leased allotments have helped protect the environment. But, they now feel they'll be held to a higher standard with the monument.

Wendy Whitehorn, Dutton, MT, is a member of Friends of the Missouri Breaks Monument. She emphasizes that the vast majority of land in the monument is public land, and the designation will not affect ranchers' private property.

“The BLM will continue to manage the public land as it always has,” Whitehorn says. “And, the public has every right to know what is happening on public land.”

Knox, though, gets a little tired of people telling him what a great thing monument status will be for ranchers.

“We'll see more interference into our lifestyles. It won't happen overnight — but it will happen,” he says. “They say there's good ‘karma’ coming with this designation. And, they think we'll all have a big group hug when it's finished — well that's just not going to happen.”

In Neon Lights

While the Knoxs look down the road at long-term threats to the livestock business, they and others are also keeping an eye on what monument status means in the short run. And they shake their heads at what Clinton and Babbitt thought they were accomplishing.

“This remote location retains unspoiled, natural settings that form a backdrop for outstanding recreational and cultural tourism opportunities,” stated Babbitt after his trip down the river. He noted the “remote location offers opportunities for solitude not commonly found today.”

“Babbitt effectively built a giant neon sign saying the breaks are ‘open for business’ — so to speak,” says outdoor enthusiast Ron Poertner of Winifred. He's a retired military officer with family ties in central Montana.

He says Babbitt supported his arguments for monument designation by predicting as many as 2,000 people/day would float portions of the breaks during the height of the Lewis and Clark bicentennial set to begin in 2003.

“Monument designation is a death wish for the preservation of the breaks,” Poertner explains. “Now there is potential for resource damage in the breaks.”

Whitehorn says this is exactly the reason for monument status.

“We all believe the monument needs to stay intact,” she says. “We're not thrilled about seeing millions of visitors, but we need to be prepared for them when they come.” She says monument designation is the best way to prepare for the inevitable attention to the breaks.

Whitehorn explains that monument status gives the BLM “line-item” budgets for the breaks. And funding will come in time to for monument managers to plan ahead.

Poertner believes ranchers should be given more credit for preserving the breaks — and not be penalized for living there. He says ranchers have the most to lose with monument designation.

“I just can't see what the upside is here. You can't tell me traditional uses won't be affected,” Poertner says. “This country is in better shape than it's ever been because these ranchers have figured out how to live here. They certainly can't do it by abusing the land.”

Promises, Promises…

Last winter the Bush administration, through Interior Secretary Gale Norton, promised to assess the impact of monument designation. Norton criticized Clinton and Babbitt for fostering conflict and hardship — instead of environmental stewardship.

“They didn't work with local property owners, elected officials and other people whose lives were affected,” Norton said in a March 2001 statement. “We're committed to building on the principle of respect for property rights.”

Whitehorn argues, though, that there was an extensive public process that occurred prior to designation.

“The BLM held many public hearings and took hundreds of comments,” she explains. “Babbitt gave our congressional delegation a chance to come up with their own plan to protect the breaks. They didn't do it.”

Nevertheless, Norton looked for alternatives to undo what she called an “11th-hour action by the Clinton administration.” She sent letters last summer asking Montana Gov. Judy Martz and other local officials for input into monument boundaries and an interim management plan. Martz appointed a task force charged with soliciting input on those two points.

But with the events of Sept. 11, national priorities changed. Attention to things like monument designations eroded. Some believe it's a convenient excuse to sidestep controversy and cop-out on the issue.

“I think the secretary reneged on her earlier commitment — saying she really doesn't have the authority to make these changes,” says Steve Pilcher, executive secretary of the Montana Stockgrowers Association. “I think it's unfortunate Secretary Norton put Gov. Martz and a lot of other Montanans through all that agony — and let me tell you, the arguments were very brutal.”

Others think Martz could have been more insistent with Norton. There was consensus during one task force meeting that the governor failed to give her full support to task force recommendations.

“From the very beginning she had steadfastly opposed monument designation,” adds Pilcher. “Personally, I'm surprised she's taking the secretary's change in direction as well as she is.”

A Legislative Approach?

So, with executive branch attention to the breaks shut down — monument opponents are looking into the legislative arena for help.

Even as early as July, legislation (H.R. 2114, the National Monument Fairness Act) was drafted recognizing there was virtually no time for opposing sides to negotiate a compromise over monument land use or boundaries. But, H.R. 2114 was also shelved after Sept. 11.

Now it appears the ranchers' best hope for relief is legislation that would exclude private property from the monument boundaries. With Gov. Martz's blessing, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT) says he'll draft legislation removing private land from monument boundaries.

Whitehorn is not sure this legislation is necessary, though. She says access to private property and traditional grazing uses are already protected by Clinton's proclamation.

“I don't know what the purpose would be to take the private property out of the monument,” she says, adding that no one is telling anyone what can or cannot be done with private property.

“We want to keep those guys on the land,” Whitehorn explains. “The proclamation and the Interim Management Plan both state that grazing can continue.”

Welcome To The Breaks

Some ranchers aren't so sure about Rehberg's legislation — but for different reasons. They feel it only scratches the surface of the problems they're facing.

“There's a lot spelled out in the monument resolution and the Antiquities Act that really bothers us,” says Knox. “It just leaves too much room for interpretation. These things will come back to haunt us.”

Wording of particular concern is over water rights. Monument status assures, “a quantity of water… sufficient to fulfill the purposes for which this monument is established.”

“That's a Trojan Horse for government water rights,” says Poertner. “Who's going to decide how much water is needed from the river's tributaries ‘for the purposes’ of the monument?”

Consideration for species thought to be potentials for the Endangered Species list — like sage grouse and prairie dogs — also concerns ranchers. They fear perching and nesting habitat for many species of falcons, eagles, hawks and shore birds could become the next spotted owl issue.

The coulees and breaks contain archeological and historical sites, from teepee rings and remnants of historic trails to abandoned homesteads. Warning has already been given by the BLM to all “unauthorized” persons not to injure, destroy or remove any feature of the monument.

An Old Story

“Monument designation changes the way the government looks at all the animals, features and all uses in the breaks,” says Karla Knox. “We just can't say where they will draw the line.”

For example, predator control will be left in the hands of the monument manager. And a “transportation plan,” including road closures or travel restrictions, will be implemented by the BLM to protect the “objects” identified in the monument proclamation.

And Poertner says the designation opens the door for more government land grabs.

“The proclamation states that lands within the proposed monument not owned by the government shall be reserved as a part of the monument upon acquisition of title by the U.S.,” he says.

But, the BLM has no hidden agenda for the private lands within this boundary, says Dave Mari, Lewistown, MT, field manager for the BLM. However, he says if a willing landowner approaches the BLM about an acquisition, easement or an exchange, the BLM would manage the acquired lands just as other public land within the monument.

Poertner doesn't buy it. And he wonders aloud why, with all the local opposition to monument designation, so much land had to be set aside.

“I just can't see why they need so much land,” he says. “There's just more to this then meets the eye.”

Whitehorn says there's tremendous public support for the monument, and boundaries were carefully drawn.

“Several opinion polls showed support for the monument. All the major Montana newspapers and some of the smaller ones came out in support of the monument,” she points out. “So, how can the designation be ‘haunting’ Montana?”

For Pilcher, it's the fear of the unwritten.

“It isn't the changes implemented today that the people fear as much the ‘vehicle’ monument designation provides for future changes,” explains Pilcher. “The agencies and their supporters are smart enough not to make dramatic changes immediately, as the backlash would be overwhelming. It's an old story to say there will be no change.”

But, the proclamation clearly states that the designation applies only to public land, emphasizes Mari.

Knox isn't being swayed by what he thinks are hollow promises.

“Everyone is telling us this is something we're going to have to live with,” he concludes. “I don't know about that — I guess we'll see. If it is, it's a tough pill to swallow.”

The History Of “The Breaks”

On April 30, 1803, a single pen stroke by President Thomas Jefferson doubled the geographical area of the U.S.

Napoleon Bonaparte, preparing for another war with England, had announced he'd sell the port of New Orleans to the U.S. if Jefferson would also take the entire 820,000-square-mile Louisiana Territory for $15 million or about 3¢/acre.

While New Orleans was strategically important to Jefferson, he viewed westward expansion equally key to the future of the young country. He convinced Congress the commercial and agricultural possibilities of the region were crucial to the nation's growth.

First, the Louisiana Purchase had to be explored and charted. On July 5, 1803, the president's aide, Meriwether Lewis, left Washington, D.C., to begin assembling an expedition to survey the headwaters of the Missouri River and to search for a waterway connecting it with the Pacific Ocean.

Over the next four years, Lewis and his friend William Clark would lead the Corps of Discovery. They explored lands and rivers and experienced peoples previously enigmatic to 19th Century Americans. They spent three weeks — May 24 through June 13, 1805 — exploring what is now the Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River. Today, this portion is considered to be the premier component of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

Earlier depictions of the land and creatures in the West had often come from the imaginations of people who had never been there. Many reports told of Western terrain spotted with unicorns, woolly mastodons, seven-foot-tall beavers, Peruvian llamas and blue-eyed, Welsh-speaking Indians.

Lewis and Clark dispelled many of those myths and made numerous assessments of the region's potential.

Of the Missouri Breaks, or “badlands,” Captain Clark wrote: “This country may with propriety, I think, be termed the Deserts of America, as I do not conceive any part can ever be settled, as it is deficient in water, timber, and too steep to be tilled.” History has shown, of course, that Clark was only partly correct in his appraisal of the region's agrarian potential.

But, he knew that as a route of Western expansion, the Missouri River would have few equals. The fur trade era stimulated the first extensive use of the river as an avenue of transportation. Then, steamboats began braving the treacherous Missouri in 1859, arriving just in time to supply the gold camps in southwest Montana and northern Idaho. Supplies unloaded in Fort Benton, MT, were freighted as far west as Washington and north to Canada's Northwest Territories.

The railroad reached Fort Benton in 1887. The last commercial steamboat arrived there in 1890. By then, the buffalo had disappeared from the Plains — replaced by livestock. Fort Benton changed from a river port to an agricultural supply center, and homesteaders began arriving in large numbers around 1910.

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