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BLM finishes work on Breaks use plan
Users of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument will face new regulations under a new management plan signed in December. The monument, shown here in early summer, stretches along 149 miles of the Missouri in north-central Montana.

Recreationists aren't likely to see many changes this year in how they use the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, despite the approval of a new resource management plan, but more fees and restrictions are planned.

Officials from the Bureau of Land Management inked the final plan for the 375,000-acre monument in December after years of study, meetings and often heated debate. The north-central Montana monument was designated in 2001. With the bulk of the paperwork done, now comes the challenge of executing the proposals.

"We need to sit down and start figuring out how we're going to implement those decisions," said Gary Slagel, monument manager.

Some of the new measures that could be in effect by 2010 include a fee to float the river, increased fees at developed campsites, restrictions on power boaters in the lower wild and scenic section of the river, and road closures that could affect some big-game hunters. Rockhounds also will not be allowed to keep any petrified wood or invertebrate fossils they find.

A dry region with steep, juniper- and sage-covered hills, the Breaks is prized by hunters for its elk, mule deer and bighorn sheep. Canoeists favor the monument's 149-mile stretch of the Missouri River, most of which remains remote and largely undeveloped.

One of the area's big claims to fame is William Clark and Meriwether Lewis' trip through the region. The explorers and their crew traveled the river upstream in 1805, and Lewis and half of the crew revisited the section on their return the following year as Clark explored the Yellowstone River.

Author Stephen Ambrose brought renewed attention to the region with his book on the expedition titled "Undaunted Courage." Ambrose called the river one of the few places along the expedition's route that looked much the same as it did 200 years earlier.

Less river use

Although the BLM's new resource management plan is adaptable if there is increased use of the monument, Slagel said river trips have actually decreased since peaking in 1998 at about 6,200 people.

"We expected a huge increase in 2005 with the Lewis and Clark bicentennial, but we actually had a huge decrease," he said. "We rationalized that people didn't come because they were worried there would be too many people."

But the decline in river use has continued. This past summer, about 4,100 people floated the river, Slagel said.

Since river use has declined, the BLM will not develop an allocation system for visitor use on the river. But the agency will still pursue a river use fee to help pay for amenities and its work along the river corridor. The agency has discussed the idea of river use fees internally, tossing around ideas like family, season and lifetime passes as options to help river runners save money.

"The last thing we want to do is price anybody out," Slagel said.

Formal talks won't start until a new recreation planner is hired at the Fort Benton office. That person will be in charge of developing the fee plan, Slagel said, which will also necessitate public meetings to discuss any proposals - possibly by this fall.

Next year the BLM will also implement a two-night limit at its boat camps from June 15 to Aug. 1 and will explore the use of designated campsites, closure of campsites and construction of additional facilities and dispersed campsites.

Groups of 20 people or more leaving from Coal Banks Landing and Judith Landing from June 15 to Aug. 1 will be limited to launching Wednesday through Friday. Groups larger than 30 will require a special recreation permit.

Right now, there is no limit on group size, although groups of 50 or more are required to purchase a permit.

Although dispersed camping will be allowed on all 90,000 acres of BLM land adjacent to the river, islands will be closed to camping from April 1 to July 31 starting in 2010 to protect nesting wildlife.

The 149-mile stretch of the Missouri is the only river in the state where floaters are required to pack out their human waste.

Powerboating rules

It also won't be until 2010 that the BLM implements new rules for power boaters.

Under the new plan, powerboats will be regulated on the lower river, from Holmes Council Island to the Fred Robinson Bridge. Powerboats will be allowed to drive downstream only at no-wake speeds Thursday through Saturday between June 15 and Sept. 15. Before June 14 and after Sept. 15, powerboaters can access the entire river from the Fred Robinson Bridge upstream to Fort Benton.

Powerboats presently are allowed in this lower stretch of river all summer long provided they travel at a no-wake speed.

No personal watercraft or floatplanes will be allowed on the river except for the section of river from Fort Benton three miles downstream.

Fewer roads

Aside from differences in management along the river, the change most recreationists are likely to notice is road closures and seasonal restrictions on some routes.

Signing roads for travel restrictions will be a huge effort that Slagel hopes to hire seasonal workers to perform, possibly beginning this summer.

Under the new resource management plan, 293 miles of roadway within the monument will remain open yearlong, 111 miles will be open seasonally and 201 miles will be closed. The closed roads would be open to mountain bike and horse travel, but not to all-terrain vehicle or motorcycle use.

Big-game retrieval using motorized vehicles will be allowed from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 81 miles of seasonally closed roads. Game carts are allowed off roads except in wilderness study areas.

Slagel said that meeting the varied needs of the public made crafting the Breaks management plan a challenge.

"I think the BLM has done a good job," he said. "It was an interesting process for us because national monuments are a new thing for the BLM."

Contact Brett French at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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