Right up front, let me say I'm disappointed by The Billings Gazette's opposition to my Missouri Breaks legislation. The simple, two-sentence bill merely calls for the federal government to clearly and openly identify private property located within the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument and preserves the right of public input regarding future additions to the monument.
Apparently, The Gazette believes the ends justify the means.
As many Montanans will recall, in the late night hours of Jan. 17, 2001, President Clinton and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt created the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument - encompassing nearly 400,000 acres of federally owned land. In the rush to complete the executive order, hours before his term expired, President Clinton included more than 80,000 acres of private land in the boundaries of the new monument, without even consulting the private property landowners whom the designation would directly affect or providing any opportunity for public review.
Skipping public input How can anyone justify federal officials skipping the process of open public input — the means - in order to accomplish their agenda — the ends? By doing so, Clinton and Babbitt trampled on the rights of the landowners, each of whom woke up the next day to find their property "effectively" annexed into a federal enclave.
"I first read about it in the newspaper the next day," Matt Knox, one of the landowners, told me of how he learned his property was gobbled up in the monument.
That's why more than 3,300 landowners and other Montanans delivered a petition asking for my bill, which simply corrects this circumvention of what should have been a public process.
Trampling on rights So what does The Gazette write about? The chicken-little, sky-is-falling arguments of a group of people who do not own land in the monument shouting that the end result justified the mistake-laden, rights-trampling, anti-public access means.
Let's summarize the key arguments being made against my bill:
"Private land is not part of the monument now, so the bill is unnecessary." Were that true, then what could possibly be wrong with my bill, which merely asks the interior secretary to redraw the map to clearly demonstrate no private land is part of the monument?
"President Clinton's executive order addressed the loss of school funding that would result from 80,000 private acres being annexed into the monument boundary." Nowhere does the proclamation guarantee safeguards for school funding.
"Well, then, the government's Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program remedies this problem." Again, sloppy research. To begin with, despite the efforts of Montana's entire congressional delegation, the government has yet to fully fund PILT, with absolutely no guarantee for the future. Even with full funding, nothing in the PILT statute requires counties to use a single penny for schools.
"If Rehberg's bill is approved, it will take an Act of Congress for the federal government to buy private land and include it in the monument." Not to be flippant, but, good. That's why we have three branches of government. It's the job of Congress to provide oversight and scrutinize the executive branch's expenditures. That's just good, open government. And, in fact, each Congress approves all sorts of federal land purchases.
In the end, this is about two opposing philosophies. I believe in the right of private property ownership, I believe in public inclusion, open public meetings, and public dialogue. The property rights opponents — and The Billings Gazette, which accepts their poor arguments at face value — see nothing wrong with government grabbing private land without notice. I would have expected more from them than that.
Several newspapers are now suing because they believe the press should have access to Board of Regents meetings. They are asking for fair public dialogue. Yet, many of these same news organizations see nothing wrong with the establishment of the monument, in which there was no fair public dialogue. No private landowners within the Breaks area were allowed to sit on the Resources Advisory Committee (RAC) that examined the issue, and no private landowner inside the monument boundary was notified that his or her land would be included.
Now, isn't this a tad hypocritical?
Apparently not, so long as the ends justify the means.