That's the Breaks? 

Making waves over the effort to protect the Missouri Breaks

One-fifth of the mighty Missouri River takes the form of reservoirs, not rivers. Only about 149 miles—six percent of the entire river—and the 400,000 acres that surround them resemble that “devil of a river” up which captains Lewis and Clark forged 200 years ago.

Now this last six percent is threatened. The Missouri River Breaks—the river and its corridor from Fort Benton, Mont., to the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge—is not as wild as it was two years ago, let alone two centuries ago. Recreational use of the river has increased 30 percent in each of the last two years, and many fear the upcoming Lewis and Clark bicentennial will flood the area with tourists. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has just proposed permitting new gas development and road building in the Bullwhacker Creek country, at the heart of the wild Breaks. There are more than 100 mineral claims there. And subdivision is becoming an increasingly attractive option for the ranches that mingle with public land.

Should we care? Yes. Even in a state with many areas that mix natural and cultural history, the Missouri River Breaks stand out. In addition to Lewis and Clark and the Native Americans that came before them, the Missouri Breaks boasts a rich history of explorers, trappers, artists, homesteaders and gangsters. The Breaks is still home to 200 species of waterfowl and upland birds, bighorn sheep, elk, legendary mule deer, and 49 species of fish.

In the face of pressure for mining, drilling, recreation, and subdivision, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt appears prepared to augment the protection for the area afforded by the existing Wild and Scenic designation, which affects little beyond the riverbed. Additional protection would most likely come in the form of national monument designation. But rather than taking precipitous action, after floating the river with author Stephen Ambrose last spring, Babbitt asked a local citizen committee formed by the BLM to give him recommendations about the best way to manage the river.

The BLM committee—made up of participants ranging from ranchers to conservationists—took extensive comment on the problems and best possible plans for the river this fall. At public hearings in Great Falls, Havre, and Lewistown, and by mail, hundreds of comments poured in; a clear majority of comments favored protecting the river corridor in some fashion.

Many of the remaining comments came from the “roof brings the rain” crowd. They acknowledged that the river is threatened, claimed that they don’t want the Breaks jet-boated, drilled, mined, subdivided, or fragmented by free-range, all-terrain vehicle driving, but reasoned that protective action would make these problems worse. You can almost see these folks standing in a half-built house, staring up at storm clouds, and concluding that putting a roof on the house will bring the rain pouring down.

After extensive discussion and public comment, the BLM committee recommended a grab bag of actions, such as banning commercial overflights, protecting and limiting river access points, and permitting continued grazing in the area, but did not give Babbitt a recommendation for or against national monument status. Babbitt has promised to visit the affected river communities this spring before making a decision on the future of the Missouri Breaks.

Sen. Conrad Burns and Rep. Rick Hill oppose protection of the river, as a national monument or in any other fashion. No surprise here: Four years ago, Burns tried to get rid of every acre of BLM land in the state, while earlier this year Hill killed 5 million dollars in federal funding to buy key wildlife habitat in the Breaks.

But Burns and Hill are non-factors. The lengths to which Babbitt has gone to respond to local concerns, and the extent to which locals have indicated that they believe the river is threatened and needs additional protection, expose the opponents’ complaints about a lack of local input as just so much hollow posturing. In decrying complaints by Hill and Burns, the Lewistown News Argus said plainly, “It would appear that Babbitt has an interest in protecting the resource in a way where our input means something.”

With Babbitt clearly interested in protecting the area, and with the work of local consultation and coordination in place, the table would appear to be set for protection of the last wild section of the Missouri River. But there is one X factor: Max Baucus. President Clinton needs Baucus’ vote and assistance in the Senate this year, and may not be willing to designate a monument against Baucus’ wishes. Conspicuously silent to date, Baucus may be able to scotch the deal.

The BLM is trying to put gas wells on Bullwhacker Creek. Toilets on the river are already overflowing, and the Lewis and Clark groupies are just starting to plan their trips. With a clear need to protect the wild Missouri, and a monument the only viable option, it will be interesting to see if Baucus shows leadership on the Missouri or joins the “rain follows the roof” crowd.

John Adams is development director for the Montana Wilderness Association. Opinions expressed in “Independent Voices” do not necessarily reflect those of the Independent or the MWA.

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