Worried about losing parts of Montana’s historic and ecological legacy, a grassroots group has sprung up to fight Trump administration attacks on the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.
On Monday, Hold Our Ground, a campaign sponsored by the Montana Wilderness Association, was launched in Fort Benton, the gateway to the 146-mile float down the Wild and Scenic Missouri River. Three spokesmen detailed the different reasons they oppose efforts by the Trump administration to rescind or diminish the 378,000-acre Missouri River Breaks monument.
“I bought my business this year thinking these opportunities would remain because the Breaks is already protected as a national monument. But Trump’s executive order threatens to strip that protection and hurt the businesses and surrounding communities that rely on the certainty of that protection,” said Nicolle Fugere, owner of Missouri River Outfitters in Fort Benton.
In April, Trump directed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review all monuments designated by presidents over the past 20 years. The 27 monuments include the Missouri River Breaks and the recently designated Bears Ears National Historic Monument in southeastern Utah.
Through an executive order using the 1906 Antiquities Act, Pres. Barack Obama set aside 1.35 million acres around the Bears Ears region in December 2016. While local tribes celebrated winning the decade-long struggle, it didn’t go over well in a Western state that elects Republican politicians vehemently opposed to federal land and federal actions.
While Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch demanded that Trump rescind the designation, legal experts think the president probably doesn't have the authority to eliminate a monument.
As a result, Zinke made a recommendation, also on Monday, that the Bears Ears monument be scaled back in size and that certain parts be managed differently than outlined in the monument designation.
The Navajo reacted with indignation, vowing to sue if the recommendation goes forward.
Zinke will now turn his sights on the other monuments and that means Montana sooner or later. So Hold Our Ground wants to be ready, and the organizers are asking Montanans to submit public comments supporting the Missouri Breaks before July 10.
Larry Epstein, a retired Glacier County attorney and former president of Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, warned Zinke not to treat the Missouri Breaks the same as he did the Bears Ears.
“This review disregards the fact that hundreds of Montanans, including myself, spent years working together to protect this stretch of the Missouri and the lands along it,” Epstein said in a release. “Polls and comments showed then – as they do now – that Montanans overwhelmingly want this landscape protected. Rehashing an argument that was settled almost 20 years ago is a waste of time and taxpayer money.”
A 2017 poll conducted by Colorado College showed that three-quarters of Montanans support the Upper Missouri Breaks and other existing monuments.
Pres. Bill Clinton designated the Upper Missouri River Breaks Monument in 2001 after two years of public comment and meetings. The Missouri River already had a Wild and Scenic designation, and much of the monument simply parallels the river corridor. But at the eastern end, it balloons away from the river to encompass more of the breaks – the badlands, cliffs and gullies formed by eons of erosion as water wended its way to the river. Much of this region is a rugged haven for wildlife including elk, deer, bighorn sheep, coyotes and an array of raptors. And like the Bears Ears, the Breaks are important to many of Montana’s tribes, said Shane Doyle, educator and Crow tribal member.
“For over 10,000 years, people have been coming to the Missouri River Breaks for the same reason: to be inspired, to learn from the land,” Doyle said. “My tribe and others have fasted, prayed, and hunted there, and there are ample artifacts protected by the monument that evoke that history. If the Breaks loses monument protection, we could also lose touch with that history, with the story of how Montanans – Native American and European American – became who we are today.”
But the flat tops of the breaks provide modest forage for livestock, and they are the most likely areas for Zinke to remove from the monument. Monument designation doesn’t remove any existing land use; it just doesn’t allow any new uses. But just as in Utah, a contingent of locals, mostly ranchers, still chafe at the thought of the monument. Even though they’re still allowed to graze their cattle on Bureau of Land Management leases in the monument, they fear it’s just a matter of time before they lose out in some way.
Ron Poertner of Winifred, Missouri River Water Stewards secretary, told the Great Falls Tribune he was happy the Missouri Breaks monument was being reviewed. The Missouri River Stewards came together because of concern about creation of the Breaks monument. Poertner fears that either cows would be kicked off the monument or bison would be added, and the River Stewards want neither.
So the review appears to be dredging up a 16-year-old controversy that will no doubt go against Missouri River monument supporters if the Bears Ears is any indication. That’s why they want as many comments as they can get in support of the monument.
“We're here to send a message that Montanans won’t tolerate any attempts to weaken that law, which has played such an important role in our public lands tradition. We’re here to hold our ground, and that starts with the Missouri River Breaks,” Doyle said.