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The Missouri Breaks: 377,246 acres of controversy
LARRY MAYER/Gazette StaffThe Missouri River winds across central Montana in this aerial photograph taken in May.

A big landscape, spectacular scenery, a pristine river and significant history - the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument has it all. Plus grazing and drilling.

How the U.S. Bureau of Land Management will oversee all of that will be guided by a locally developed management plan. BLM's Lewistown Field Office is looking to the public for ideas through a series of 11 meetings beginning Monday.

The monument also is part of the BLM's National Landscape Conservation System. This little-known system was established in 2000 in response to growing public concern over the loss of open space. The system brings together some of the agency's premier lands, including monuments, national conservation areas and wilderness areas, to raise the public's awareness of special places, such as the Breaks.

The Wilderness Society and a consortium of individuals and nonprofit groups are working to draw more attention to the agency's NLCS and are calling for the development of strong management plans for sites, such as monuments.

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who helped create the conservation system, called it "a big concept" that says "it's time for the BLM to have a system of protected lands."

The NLCS didn't create any new legal protections. Rather, it provides overall guidance for lands within the system.

Babbitt said the BLM in the minds of most Westerners historically has been the "Bureau of Livestock and Mining." But in fact, the BLM, which manages 264 million acres and is the largest public-lands agency in the United States, has special and remarkable lands such as the canyonlands in southern Utah and the Missouri Breaks, he said.

In creating the NLCS, the idea was to recognize and administer those special areas for their conservation values, Babbitt said.

He compared the NLCS to the national park system and the national wildlife refuge system, also managed by the Interior Department. But unlike national parks, Babbitt said, the NLCS lands ought to be relatively undeveloped places where traditional uses continue.

The Breaks monument is a good example of the conservation system, Babbitt said in a recent interview from his Washington, D.C., office. President Clinton designated the Breaks as a national monument in January 2001. The monument encompasses 377,246 acres along 149 miles of the Upper Missouri River from Fort Benton downstream of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.

"The whole idea of having a national monument is this place will be protected forever. It's not going to be dredged or dammed," Babbitt said. "We're not going to be up there some day and find mining or riparian forests being cut down."

Babbitt said the Breaks in many ways is the most important of all the monuments that were created both by Clinton and Congress. "It's the last pristine stretch of the entire Mississippi River system," he said. The Mississippi and Ohio rivers and most of the Missouri River have been altered by dams, dredging, levies and other water-control methods. "In all of the thousands of miles of pristine rivers which once existed between the Appalachians and the Rockies, this is the one wild remaining stretch of what this country once looked like," he said.

A place of history Another reason the Breaks is so important is its historical value. Prior to the designation, Babbitt floated the river with the late author and historian Stephen Ambrose, whose book, "Undaunted Courage" about the Lewis and Clark Expedition became a bestseller. Ambrose read aloud passages from the Lewis and Clark journals describing the very places they were passing.

Babbitt said the cliffs are still there and so are the eagles in the cottonwood canopy. "It is the most significant memorial to Lewis and Clark that we have in the country," he said of the monument.

Controversy surrounded the designation, and the monument continues to rankle. Opponents viewed the designation as a federal land grab and an effort to lock up development of oil and gas reserves.

U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., is leading an effort to change the boundaries to remove private lands from within the monument. About 81,000 acres of private land, in addition to state land are within the monument boundaries. Rehberg introduced legislation earlier this year and submitted petitions signed by 3,300 Montanans in support of his bill. A similar effort last year by Rehberg failed.

"Attempts to change the boundaries by legislation is really an anti-monument move," Babbitt said. Adjusting the boundaries is unnecessary because private land owners have "complete protection," he said.

The focus now should be on asking detailed questions about how the monument will be administered and what benefits it will bring, Babbitt said.

System in infancy The former Interior secretary said it was a little early to assess how well the NLCS is working. But he said the Bush administration has endorsed the concept and has not tried to revoke any of the presidential orders creating the monuments. The real test will come with the development of management plans, he said.

"It is a very important time for public involvement, just to make sure as BLM does the management planning process that they hear a message from the public: 'We want strong protection for these places,'" he said.

Betsy Buffington, of the Wilderness Society in Bozeman, said the conservation system is a great system. "Let's make it work. And part of making it work is getting it funded," she said.

One of the challenges for monuments is lack of funding for developing management plans and adequate staffing, Buffington said. The Breaks, she said, is expected to draw a barrage of visitors during the Lewis and Clark bicentennial in the next few years and plans are coming along slowly.

Buffington said it is critical for the Breaks that BLM develop and implement a management plan that protects the landscape and its remote character. "They need funds to finish up that plan," she said.

Gary Slagel, manager of the Breaks monument, said funding wasn't really a problem and that BLM currently has good funding for the management plan. "We seem to be in pretty good shape right now. We hope it continues," he said.

The final management plan should be completed in 2005, which is during the Lewis and Clark bicentennial. While Slagel said he would feel a little more comfortable if the plan were completed before the celebrations in Montana, it is important to do it right.

"To do one of these right and to involve the public properly takes time," he said. "I think the trade- off is worth it."

Slagel said the NLCS provides overall guidance and review from Washington, D.C., of the management plans and helps with budgeting. But the Lewistown Field Office is developing the plan with help from the public and guidance from the proclamation that created the monument.

The Breaks, Slagel said, is a multiple-use monument where existing oil and gas drilling and grazing will continue along with recreational activities. He described it as conservation management while having multiple uses.

The BLM intends to retain the scenic and historical character of the area while allowing grazing and drilling to continue as long as activity doesn't hurt the resource and the special qualities for which the monument was designated, Slagel said. "We can still allow some gas development to occur if we manage it properly," he said.

Slagel expects a good turnout for 11 public meetings and said people are eager to have a say in developing the management plan. "We want them to help us write the future of this monument," he said.

Lend your ideas The Bureau of Land Management's Lewistown Field Office will host a series of 11 workshops starting Monday to hear ideas on management plans for the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.

The BLM used information provided a year ago at open houses to help define issues about which the public has strong feelings. Those issues are access and transportation, health of the land and fire; natural gas exploration and development; and visitor use, services and infrastructure.

Monument Manager Gary Slagel said the workshops are important.

"It's now that the public and BLM will begin completing specific management alternatives for the monument, and we hope all public land users will participate," Slagel said. "These workshops are designed to enable members of the public to work closely with the resource management team to produce alternatives for managing these public lands."

Each workshop will run from 6-9 p.m. The workshops will be:

July 14, Winifred, Winifred High School

July 15, Lewistown, Yogo Inn

July 16, Big Sandy, Big Sandy School Auditorium

July 17, Fort Benton, Agricultural Museum

July 21, Havre, Triangle Telephone Coop

July 22, Chinook, Chinook Motor Inn

July 23, Cleveland Cleveland Hunting Lodge

July 24, Malta, Malta High School

July 28, Hays, Jon Capture Center

July 29, Great Falls, Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center

July 30, Billings, Hampton Inn.

For questions about these workshops, call Gary Slagel at (406) 538-1950 or Craig Flentie at (406) 538-1943.

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