Slam on the Breaks 

Will Martz ignore public comment on the Missouri Breaks?

Ask the average Montanan which politician, former President Bill Clinton or Gov. Judy Martz, would be more likely to circumvent the democratic process for political gain, and most would give the nod to the former president. Yet deciphering the events of the past few weeks surrounding Martz is task force on the newly designated Missouri Breaks National Monument, the evidence suggests an agenda driven by the usual cynicism for the political process.

The story goes like this: President Bush’s Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, while acquiescing in public to the legal reality that the nine new national monuments declared during Clinton’s tenure cannot be revoked, has been looking into possible methods for nibbling around the edges of these monuments. Norton asked sympathetic Western governors to form citizens’ task forces that would make recommendations to the governors in their respective states. The governors would then send those recommendations to Norton, who could conceivably use that testimony as evidence that Americans don’t really want national treasures like rare ecosystems and historic landmarks protected.

Of course, the tendency to load these task forces with locals with various axes to grind against the federal government might render such testimony dead on arrival, so in the very peculiar case of the Missouri Breaks Monument, Martz deserves some credit. In laying down the ground rules for the Missouri Breaks task force, Martz indicated on July 13 that the circus surrounding some public testimony would not be acceptable. “Only written comments will be considered in the task force deliberations,” noted Martz.

Fast forward a month to Aug. 10, the end of a four-week public comment period in which citizens could submit their written opinions. Out of 1,700 comments, 1,100 or so were in favor of keeping the monument as Clinton had designated it on Jan. 17. So when the four-member task force met Aug. 14 in Fort Benton to vote on its recommendation to Martz, monument supporters were a bit dismayed when the task force recommended shrinking the monument from 495,000 acres to the 90,000 acres, as it was designated in 1976 as a federal “Wild and Scenic River.”

Then things got ugly. Apparently, the task force members had not reviewed the comments they’d solicited from the general public. Some serious backpedaling began. Art Kleinjan, Blaine County commissioner and chairman of Martz’s task force, gently reminded monument allies that recommendations made at the Aug. 14 meeting were draft recommendations, and promised that task force members would review all comments before the next meeting, scheduled for Tues., Aug. 21. Supporters of the monument were not so diplomatic. Dennis Tighe, president of Friends of the Missouri Breaks Monument, immediately fired off a letter to Gov. Martz, requesting the task force be disbanded and its authority terminated.

“We find it incredible that the task force would make recommendations without first consulting the written comments which the task force itself had invited,” Tighe wrote. “The recommendation of the task force to shrink the Monument appears not only to be made without consideration of public opinion but in defiance of it.”

The task force, while admitting it had not reviewed the public record, isn’t solely to blame for its blunder. Interior Secretary Norton had requested that all task force recommendations be submitted to her by Sept. 1, putting it on a tight deadline. What’s worse, there appears to be a significant lapse of communication between Martz’s staff and the task force members. Those 1,700 public comments were received by the governor’s office and counted by her staff. The numbers indicating 1,100 in favor of the monument and 500 opposed were tallied by her staff. How did such information not make it to the task force? Todd O’Hair, Martz’s natural resource policy advisor, characterized the public comments at the Aug. 14 meeting as statements mostly in favor or in opposition, but not containing a lot of substantive remarks or recommendations concerning boundaries, tourism, or recreation. While O’Hair’s characterization of the public comments may have been helpful in absence of the task force members themselves reading them, O’Hair may have been better off had he furnished the task force with enough copies of the comments for all four panel members to review them, a job he promised to get about before the next meeting. The irony here is that those opposing the monument have all along asserted that the monument designation circumvented a fair democratic process. Martz’s administration may have turned this argument on its head, trying to accomplish in a month what former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and President Clinton took a year and a half to do. That process began in 1999 when, at Babbitt’s request, a Central Resource Advisory Council began the arduous task of addressing concerns with a possible monument designation. That council, also comprised of representatives from local towns, ranches and farms, was able to reach agreement on some issues before Clinton’s designation, and was in the process of hammering out agreements on others.

In the process, the council received about 6,000 comments in favor of monument status for the Missouri Breaks. As of press time, the Governor’s task force had announced its final recommendation—to decrease the size of the Missouri Breaks National Monument from Clinton’s originally designated 497,000 acres to only 90,000 acres. In other words, the monument would include only the area already designated in 1976 as a Wild and Scenic River. Martz’s opposition to monument status is no secret, and she has friends in high places. At the Western Governor’s Conference a week earlier in Coeur d’Alene, Norton told a reporter from the Oregonian that management decisions concerning the Missouri Breaks were “out of the Interior’s hands.” This could mean, in effect, that Norton intends to employ the same strategy used by the Bush Administration to blunt the Forest Service’s roadless initiative: By not lifting a finger to implement its provisions, its opponents are given license to kill it.

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