Missouri Breaks Monument in limbo

Charlie Denison

Aerial views of the Upper Missouri River Breaks Monument were taken Friday during an EcoFlight ride piloted by Bruce Gordon.
Photo by Charlie Denison

Dave Mari talks about the importance of preservation during an EcoFlight over the Upper Missouri River Breaks Monument Friday.
Photo by Charlie Denison

Dave Mari never thought this would happen. The former Bureau of Land Management Lewistown field officer didn’t think the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument could be reviewed.

Fifteen years ago, when the monument was being considered, he knew there was a chance it wouldn’t go through, as many Winifred ranchers and residents had expressed concerns, but that was 15 years ago. The controversy, he thought, was over, and the monument was here to stay.

Never in his wildest dreams could Mari have predicted the fate of the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument would lie in the hands of New York billionaire Donald Trump, who was sworn in as President of the United States in January.

In April, Trump and his administration began looking into Theodore Roosevelt’s Antiquities Act, making claims it’s been abused in the past. In particular, the administration is eyeing the creation of recent national monuments across the West, according to a news release from the Department of the Interior. Led by Whitefish native and former Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke, the Department of the Interior recently expressed interest in perhaps “shrinking the boundaries” of the 378,000-acre monument, which spans 149 miles of the Upper Missouri River, from Fort Benton into the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. The monument was established in January, 2001, by President Bill Clinton, just days before George W. Bush’s inauguration.

By way of the Antiquities Act, Clinton could create the monument without going through the legislative process, Mari said. However, Winifred rancher Ron Poertner believes – if a legislative process had occurred –the monument would not have passed.

“The governor at the time, commissioners and even legislators opposed it,” Poertner said. “Elected officials were standing up. The local people were pretty clear, too. There was fairly universal opposition.”

Most of the public hearings, Boertner said, discussed the preservation of the 149-mile Wild and Scenic portion of the Missouri River. When the monument was designated, it included 378,000 acres of federal land, 82,000 acres of private property and 39,0000 acres of state land. This was not the boundary then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt called for, Poertner said, which he said makes him and other landowners refer to the monument as “federal overreach.” That’s why he’d like to see Secretary Zinke “right an egregious wrong” and “recommend President Trump reduce the boundary of the monument to conform to the current boundary of the Wild and Scenic Missouri.”

On Tuesday, however, while attending the Western Governors’ Association meeting in his hometown, Zinke addressed the Upper Missouri River Breaks Monument and does not intend to make any changes.

“It is my likely recommendation to leave the Missouri Breaks as is,” he said at a press conference. “I think it’s settled to a degree that I would rather not open up a wound that has been healed.”

Zinke said in the press conference he believes the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument “protects the unique natural area, ensures public access and maintains traditional uses.”

A member of the Friends of the Missouri Breaks, Mari said he appreciates the monuments for the same reasons. What he doesn’t want to see is the land taken away and used to strip natural resources. He’d like to see the land protected.  The scenic uplands, for example, located adjacent to the Wild and Scenic River, roughly beyond Stafford Ferry, should remain intact. This land, Mari said, offers excellent hunting for big horn sheep, turkey and deer. 


Focus on preservation

BLM Central Montana Advisory Council member Mary Frieze and Mari, along with members of the press, rode in a plane over the monument Friday piloted by Bruce Gordon, the President of EcoFlight.

Mari told those aboard there is too much they could lose if the monument lands are not preserved.

“This land includes six national study areas, homesteads and history,” he said. “When the Nez Perce were trying to escape the U.S. Army in 1877, they crossed the Missouri River, finding a low spot at Cow Island on Cow Creek, which is all part of the monument.”

Amending parts of the Antiquities Act is of grave concern to Mari, as there are so many monuments and National Parks – from the Grand Canyon to Zion to Devil’s Tower – that could potentially be tampered with, as well. .

“Public lands should be protected,” Mari said.

Mari didn’t think he had to worry. Over time, he thought, people had grown to accept the monument. There were concerns about grazing rights at first, but under existing law, grazing was allowed to continue.

“There is no threat to grazing,” Mari said.

But the issue is not so black-and-white, Poertner said.

“The proclamation said grazing would continue but there are groups out there who don’t want cows on public land period,” he said. “So far it’s been OK, but the monument is a magnet for litigation. You just don’t know when something might pop up.”

Gordon, President of EcoFlight, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting America’s remaining wild lands, said he believes much of the monument disdain is more ideological than fact-based. The idea of government control, he said, is too much.

Much of Gordon’s time is spent up in the air all around the West. Originally from the Bronx, Gordon said he finds the desolation of the Missouri Breaks particularly stunning.

“The beauty of this place is that nobody is around,” he said.

Mari, who is originally from Illinois, feels the same. During the flight, he looked out at the Breaks in awe, amazed by how untouched the land remains.

“If you want to see what the West looked like when Lewis and Clark were here, this is it,” Mari said.






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