Washington & the Monuments 

Do Montana’s new national monuments stand a chance?

Former President Clinton earned the admiration of environmentalists and the scorn of conservative Republicans as he designated seven new national monuments on his way out of the White House last week. Nationally, the two sides continued exchanging political postures and legal maneuvers. Rep. Jim Hansen (R-Utah) wrote President Bush an eight-page letter outlining various ways in which the incoming administration might undo at least some provisions of the 18 monuments declared by Clinton in the past eight years. And the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a consortium of snowmobile and Off-Highway Vehicle users whose goal is motorized access to all public lands, including those under national monument status, filed suit to repeal the Clinton monuments. While Bush has promised to review each designation, pundits in his camp acknowledge that rescinding the actions, which invoke the same Antiquities Act that Teddy Roosevelt used to designate federal monuments, would leave the new president in a precarious legal and political position on environmental issues.

Clinton seems to have read Undaunted Courage before bestowing national monument status for two sites in Montana. Both have significant value in Lewis and Clark’s journey out West. The Missouri Breaks, containing some 377,000 acres along the upper Missouri River, in terms of total area as well as controversy, far overshadowed the 51 acres designated at Pompey’s Pillar, where William Clark etched his name in sandstone near what is now Billings. Residents of the sparsely populated area affected by the upper Missouri designation, most of whom derive their income from ranching and farming, formed at least two groups opposed to the monument status. At issue is a perceived threat to grazing permits historically issued by the Bureau of Land Management for federally managed land adjacent to the Missouri.

Just ask Jim Griffin, owner of Three Rivers Canoes in Loma, the oldest guide service for week-long canoe tours of the Breaks. “Generally, I’d say as of last summer, most folks around here were opposed to the idea of a national monument,” says Griffin. “The reasons were the usual ones you might guess, partly because a lot of income in the area is derived from agriculture and partly local sentiment about outside control, whether that’s real or contrived.”

Though the most vocal opinions in the region are clearly opposed to the designation, Griffin feels most local citizens will adapt to the idea as long as no new radical management decisions were quickly mandated—an unlikely possibility given the political bent of the new president’s cabinet. Griffin also predicts his business will eventually benefit from the new monument, as long as no new licensing regulations are put into effect.

“The funny thing is, ten years ago, there were only three outfitters guiding this section of the Missouri. Now there’s 25,” he says. “So the business had multiplied, but spread out over a bunch of different outfits. I think the long-term positive effect is going to be increased awareness of the [Missouri Breaks] area, but who knows? The American public can be fickle about these kinds of things.”

The political reaction to the Missouri Breaks designation has also taken on a wait-and-see tone. Jen Ferenstien of the Sierra Club in Missoula is hopeful about the process of developing a long-term management plan for the area. “The BLM is committed to giving everyone a voice,” she says. “I think a lot of the rhetoric coming from the most outspoken national groups is a lot of smoke and mirrors. I’ve heard things like, ‘There’s not going to be beef on dinner tables, and, ‘There’ll be no way to heat homes next winter.’” That’s Chicken Little talking, the folks who are intent on making a poster child of every public lands issue that says, ‘Look what the government took away from me.’”

Ferenstein is more concerned about the quiet policy decisions made by the Bush administration that may eventually render Clinton’s national monument designations meaningless. “Citizens really need to be vigilant in the next few years,” Ferenstein warns. “The vast majority of Americans have said we owe it to future generations to protect our resources, and frankly, these lands belong to people not just locally but far away as well.”

In the mean time, Griffin is gearing up for the busiest years approaching the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark’s trip on the Missouri. “I can tell you about days in the past few years when there were 150 people in one night at one designated camp area,” Griffin says. “That’s still unusual. In June, July and August, ten people is still crowded for a camp area. Overall, I think this will be a positive thing as long as we can make some money, you know, as long as the BLM doesn’t change things too much.”

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