Missouri River outdoors

A group of hikers makes their way through a slot canyon near the Eagle Creek campground on the Missouri River in 2016. "Pick a coulee and go see what's up there," encourages Mark Schaefer, BLM's supervisory outdoor recreation planner for the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. "Everybody looks up into the White Cliffs, but nobody ever goes up in them."

KURT WILSON, For the Gazette

There will be no changes the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke confirmed Wednesday.

The announcement made official what Zinke told The Gazette last weekend, that his late June commitment to leaving the 590-square-mile national monument hadn't changed.

“​​The monument is one of the only free-flowing areas of the Missouri that remains as Lewis and Clark saw it more than 200 years ago," Zinke said Wednesday in a press release.

The central Montana monument near Landusky is one of 27 monuments established during the previous 20 years by presidents using the Antiquities Act. President Donald Trump ordered the monuments reviewed in May.

Zinke has made recommendations on four monuments thus far. 

The former U.S. representative from Montana said Saturday that the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument decision was effectively made in early June after consulting with U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and hearing from Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.

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Experience the mighty Missouri

There's more than one great way to experience Montana's Missouri River - the longest river in the United States. The top entry point for our Big Sky Bucket list? As the river flows east toward its eventual meetup with the mighty Mississippi, start at Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. Spanning 149 miles of the Upper Missouri, and including 378,000 acres of public land, the monument preserves land where both the dinosaurs and Lewis and Clark roamed. And, that land, according to the Bureau of Land Management, is virtually unchanged since the explorers came through.

In the month that followed, Interior officials looked at whether designated roads into the monument area were being maintained and whether public access, hunting and fishing opportunities were preserved.

Department of the Interior received thousands of letters concerning the monument. Most comments submitted supported preserving the monument, which stretches 149 miles down the Missouri River and abuts the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.

Former President Bill Clinton created the monument Jan. 17, 2001, less than a week before leaving office. Opponents say the last-minute proclamation was a way to dodge public outcry from people who considered the declaration a grab by the federal government.

The Antiquities Act allows presidents to set aside objects of historic or scientific interest to prevent their destruction. The law was created in 1906 to guard against looting of sacred American Indian sites.

When designating the central Montana monument, Clinton said the Breaks is the only major portion of the Missouri River to be protected and preserved in its natural, free-flowing state. The area also is the premier segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

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Missouri Breaks

The national monument on Montana's Upper Missouri River Breaks covers about 377,346 acres of federal land, including the Breaks country north of the river.

Lewis and Clark spent three weeks in 1805 traveling the area, which includes rolling grasslands, white cliffs, rugged badlands and remnants of ancient cottonwood groves. The explorers’ journals described the wildlife, geology of the river banks and Native American cultures.

The review of monuments came about in response to Republican lawmakers from Utah who accused former President Barack Obama of abusing the Antiquities Act last fall to create the Bears Ears National Monument, which includes several prehistoric sites and artifacts. The site also includes private property.

In June, Zinke recommended Trump reduce the size of the 1.3 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument. Federal land removed from the monument would remain public, but would not be protected under monument designation.

There are also thousands of acres of private property within the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument boundary. Some of those landowners say that although the 16 years since the designation have been inconsequential, they worry about future restrictions. They worry that the monument designation will become the foundation for lawsuits about how land within the monument is used.

Although the public comment period on the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument ended in early July, pro-monument groups continue encouraging Montanans to contact Zinke and Daines about leaving the monument as is.

The Montana Wilderness Association is running save-the-monument ads in Billings and Missoula TV markets.

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Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.