For the past seven years, the Friends of the Missouri Breaks Monument has monitored the Bureau of Land Management's planning process for the Monument. As citizens who recreate, live and work in Breaks country, the Friends were excited about the new monument designation in 2001 and advocated for a plan that was consistent with the protections required by the monument's proclamation and also consistent with how the BLM manages other special lands in the West.
Business as usual
The BLM recently published its final plan for the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. We are disappointed. The Friends group was hoping for a plan with a strong conservation-based vision that would elevate this Montana monument to the status it deserves. Under the proclamation, these monument lands are to be administered primarily, although not exclusively, to preserve and restore the natural systems. The proclamation mentions the preservation and protection of the extraordinary scenic, natural, historic and cultural values of the Upper Missouri River Breaks. This plan, however, seems to treat the monument no differently than other lands the BLM manages, lands which for generations have been the exclusive province of the extractive users. In fact, if there is one thing about the plan, it is just how "per usual" this monument is treated by the BLM.
It continues to advocate for six backcountry airstrips and allows a road system that includes endless random two-tracks with no destination. It allows motorboats on the entire wild and scenic stretch of the Missouri River, the last free-flowing 149 miles of this historic river.
Unlike any other national monument, the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument designates multiple backcountry airstrips and refuses to publish a monument boundary in its planning documents. Instead, the Breaks plan focuses on maintaining motorized use and undermining the historical, rugged experience for which the monument was designated.
Monument managers could have chosen a different path, a path similar to the one followed by their BLM colleagues in Utah, Idaho and Arizona in planning documents for the Grand-Staircase Escalante, Craters of the Moon and Agua Fria National Monuments. In Craters of the Moon, close to 98 percent of the monument is considered "pristine" (where motorized use is prohibited) or "primitive"(where motorized use is greatly reduced). In the Grand-Staircase Escalante, 94 percent of the monument is "primitive" (no motorized use) or "outback" (limited motorized use). In Agua Fria, the "backcountry" prohibits off-road vehicle use on 81 percent of the monument, with the more intrusive uses limited to the "front country" and "passage" areas.
Better paths not taken
Similarly, these monuments have taken a much more progressive stance on wilderness analysis and visitation, acknowledging that natural and cultural resources around which the monuments were created can be protected even while visitors experience, enjoy and learn from them.
The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument is but one unit within the BLM's National Landscape Conservation System, a designation that honors the BLM's nationwide commitment to a higher standard of care to protect these outstanding natural areas. But this plan falls short of that commitment. A conservation-oriented management plan would protect the values that make the Breaks monument special. A far better conservation approach is needed if people want to see cottonwood galleries in the future, healthy and varied natural vegetation for native wildlife and a clean river in a landscape similar to what the Corps of Discovery saw over 200 years ago.
Mary V. Jones of Lewistown is the coordinator for Friends of the Missouri Breaks Monument.