Leaked Monument Plan Broadsides Ranchers, Rural Montana

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“Fort to Fort” Monument Seeks National Monument, Bison Range from Fort Benton to Fort Peck

                                             – Guest Opinion by Aaron Flint

When people ask me on the talk show where I’m from, I tell them that I call Glasgow my hometown.  Granted, I’ve moved around my whole life, but I lived in Glasgow longer than anywhere else, so there you have it.  Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I remember my good friend Jordan Jones telling me how he and his family were boycotting certain products.  Why, you might ask:  Because those companies were contributing to an organization that wanted to push Montana ranchers off the land, and turn Montana into an American Serengeti.  I was only in 4th or 5th grade in Glasgow, and didn’t grow up on a ranch, but I remember his words. 

Over the years, those concerns from the ranching community were written off as mild conspiracy theories.  Maybe you missed the news from last weekend, but I’m here to tell you that concern can no longer be written off as a conspiracy theory.  Don’t take it from me, though.  Look at the internal documents leaked from the US Department of the Interior last week and you will find detailed plans to create a new federal monument stretching from Fort Benton all the way to Fort Peck, Montana.   According to the Obama Administration’s draft memo on “National Monument Designations under the Antiquities Act,” the Department of Interior (DOI) is eyeing a new monument designation in Montana called “Montana’s Northern Prairie,” which could connect more than 2.5 million acres of grasslands with the Bitter Creek Wilderness Study Area and Grasslands National Park in Canada. 

One of the concerns written off as a conspiracy theory has been the idea that conservation attempts in eastern Montana would create an American Serengeti replacing cattle ranching with free-roaming bison.  According to the newly released, or leaked, documents, DOI says “Montana’s Northern Prairie” would allow for the creation of “a possible National Bison Range.”  Free roaming bison may be romantic: but they don’t buy Chevy’s, they don’t buy Ford’s, and they don’t buy expensive tractors or contribute to your local athletic booster club.    

The new monument proposal doesn’t just stop with federal lands for new restrictions.  Included in the DOI memo are two privately held Montana ranches slated for federal takeover: The PN Ranch near Winifred and the ABN Ranch near Fort Benton.  Since the ranch names were included in the document, I assumed they must be willing sellers or givers.  Yet, when I called both ranches, the first they had heard of their ranch land possibly being included in the designation was from my phone call.   


Even though the leaked document is the first we have heard of this monument proposal, apparently somebody in state government has been talking with Interior.  The memo specifically says, “The State of Montana has also indicated a desire to divest itself of 39,000 acres of in-holdings in the same area.”  Yet, when I called both the MT Dept. of Natural Resources and Conservation and the MT Dept . of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks- both agencies said all they know is what they have read in the news.  Oddly enough, the spokesman for the DNRC told me no one , to his knowledge, has bothered to contact DOI for more information on what land the feds presume they are entitled to.  

But no need to worry because this is just a “very, very, very preliminary document” as the DOI spokeswoman told the New York Times.  Wrong.  All that needs to happen for this Fort Benton to Fort Peck federal land grab to become law is the stroke of a pen by the President under something called the Antiquities Act.  For reference, and as the “Ten Miles to Nowhere” blog pointed out, watch the cheesy old episode of “West Wing” where the fictitious president spoke of creating a “Big Sky National Park” for where the real Administration seems to be getting their talking points from.  

As the federal government looks to create a national bison range from Fort Benton to Fort Peck, separately the Western Watersheds environmental group has filed suit to end cattle grazing in the already established Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. On top of that, a private organization called the American Prairie Foundation (APF) is working to create a 3.5 million acre wildlife refuge by buying out ranches in the Malta area, replacing cattle ranching with free roaming bison preserves.  According to Tom Lutey’s article in the “Billings Gazette,” APF has already spent nearly $8 million buying 11 ranches.

It’s not a question of whether to protect the land or not.  Groups like the Montana Land Reliance led by Glasgow native Mary (Page) Hanson, can conserve the land through easements, and keep the land in production, contributing to the local economy.  What this issue boils down to is whether or not the President can bypass local input and congressional approval to lock off land stretching from outside Great Falls to the other side of Glasgow.  So far, only Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT) has spoken out on the subject.  Rehberg told the New York Times, “The Antiquities Act was never intended as an end-run around the will of the people, nor as a land grab device for East Coast politicians.” Those of us back in Montana can either call for the all out repeal, or the simple reform of the Antiquities Act.  Or, by failing to act, do we risk seeing the very farms and ranches which have formed the base of our communities becoming nothing more than antiques themselves?

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(Aaron Flint is the Host of the statewide radio talk show, “Voices of Montana,” heard live each weekday from 9-10:00AM on over a dozen Montana radio stations.) 

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