Rumors of Nat’l Monuments in Montana Continue

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An internal U.S. Department of the Interior document identifying 14 new sites for possible national monument designation was leaked to congressional Republicans earlier this year, giving some folks across the West flashbacks of President Bill Clinton’s last days in office.

On Jan. 17, 2001 — three days before he officially left office — Clinton set aside 377,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management-administered public lands in northcentral Montana with the stroke of his pen.

Clinton’s 11th-hour executive order, authorized by the Antiquities Act of 1906, created the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.

It also created uproar.

The designation was cheered by conservationists who long sought to protect the unspoiled landscape, but opponents viewed it as a unilateral federal land grab that disregarded the rights and concerns of landowners inside and around the new national monument.

Just days before Clinton signed the order, the Montana Legislature overwhelmingly passed resolutions in the House and Senate opposing it, but to no avail.

Fast forward to February, nine years later. 

When news broke that Interior officials were considering recommending up to 13 million acres of federal land for national monument designation, Western GOP lawmakers went on the offensive.

“This naked abuse of power is not only a misuse of the Antiquities Act, but an egregious affront to the will of Montanans,” Montana Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg said in a statement shortly after the memo was leaked.

Interior Department officials were quick to dismiss the leaked document as nothing more than a product of internal brainstorming sessions. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar assured a Senate panel that talk of new monument designations was “false rumors.”

However, a Tribune review of internal Interior Department e-mails found that if that was the case, the rumors started at the top levels of Interior Department agencies.

According to the Tribune’s review, high-ranking officials at the BLM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service have been working for nearly a year on a series of “vision documents” outlining Salazar’s “Treasured Landscapes” public land conservation initiative. The leaked monument memo is a seven-page snippet from BLM’s contribution to that initiative process.

The document, authored by BLM Director Robert Abbey and members of his staff, identifies 2.5 million acres in Montana for possible monument designation. Known as the Bitter Creek and Montana Glaciated Plains grasslands, the area in question stretches from the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge to the edges of Grasslands National Park at the Canadian border and takes in huge swaths of Phillips and Valley counties.

 

Abbey said the leaked document was taken out of context. Interior officials refused requests by lawmakers and members of the media to release the complete BLM vision paper.

The secrecy surrounding the full BLM vision paper has people such as Matt Knox worried about the agency’s vision for Montana.

“It’s troubling to me because we’ve been through this for 10 years,” said Knox, a Winifred rancher and president of Missouri River Stewards.

Knox said some environmental groups have tried to ban grazing in the Breaks ever since it became a national monument, putting the future of his ranching operation in question.

“Our deeded land is mixed in with BLM land. If we lose the ability to use the BLM land, it affects our private lands,” Knox said. “We’re in a real complicated situation here. I suspect the people on the Hi-Line would be in the same boat. There’s a lot of deeded land in that area.”

Interior officials’ claims that the department has no plans to designate new monuments in Montana are cold comfort for Knox.

“I’d like to take what they say at their word, but I don’t trust them,” Knox said. “I think where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

Other people see the brouhaha as nothing more than political gamesmanship on the part of GOP lawmakers.

“That document is not saying what Rehberg is telling everybody it says,” said Dyrck Van Hyning, a volunteer member of Friends of the Missouri Breaks.

Van Hyning said he doesn’t know of any conservation groups in Montana that support the idea of turning large swaths of Montana grasslands into national monuments or pushing ranchers off their land. In the case of the Breaks, Van Hyning said, ranchers are critical to the long-term protection of the landscape.

“We want to keep those ranchers on the land rather than have them sell that land to some developer who will carve it up,” Van Hyning said. “That’s the worse thing that could happen out there.”

The backlash from Montanans in regard to the leaked memo prompted U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., to call on Salazar to answer questions about possible future monument designations in Montana.

According to e-mail records, shortly after the leaked document became public, a Tester staffer told Interior officials that the senator “is taking a lot of heat for the leaked monuments memo.”

In a June 23 appropriations subcommittee hearing, Tester asked Salazar point-blank if there was any truth to the monument rumors, or whether the rumors were being spread by people who were “out there fanning the flames.”

“I think it is just folks fanning the flames,” Salazar responded, adding that the Interior Department has no plans to designate federal lands without engaging the public first.

Two days later Salazar put his pledge in writing.

In a June 25 letter to Tester, Salazar wrote that talks of possible monument designations were “false rumors.”

“As long as I am Secretary of the Interior, there will be no recommendation for designation of national monuments in Montana unless there is significant public involvement, discussion, and debate over any such proposal,” Salazar wrote.

Tester said this week that he is satisfied with Salazar’s response.

“All these memos are running around. There are press releases running around the State of Montana. There are documents running around the state of Montana. I wanted to talk to the head guy, the horse’s mouth so to speak, to see if there were any plans. Basically, he said no,” Tester said in an interview earlier this week. “That’s good enough for me. He’s the guy who’s going to be making the recommendation, regardless of what the people underneath him do.”

Van Hyning doesn’t take the leaked document too seriously either.


“For one thing, the document talks about buying out ranchers for $300 per acre. Well there’s not a rancher in Montana who would sell his land for that low of a price,” Van Hyning said. “That tells me this thing was written by some folks back east who don’t have a clue about Montana.”

But critics remain skeptical, in part because Interior officials refuse to release the full BLM vision document. The leaked portion of the document, labeled “Internal Draft — Not For Release,” contains pages 15 through 21.

 

In response to a request by members of the Congressional Western Caucus, the Interior Department released 383 pages of e-mails related to Salazar’s “Treasured Landscapes Initiative,” but not the full document.

 

Republican lawmakers aren’t satisfied with the agency’s response.

“Any one of these questions could be answered very quickly if they would just go ahead and release the memo, and all of the documents and e-mails that were going back and forth,” Rehberg said. “I don’t understand the lack of transparency. If they’ve got nothing to hide, then hide nothing.”

Rehberg sponsored a bill earlier this year to basically exempt Montana from the Antiquities Act, and last week he signed on to a bill with other Western lawmakers that would require congressional approval of any national monument designation.

A Tribune review of the 383 pages of e-mails dating back to July 2009 found that top-level agency officials were engaged in lengthy discussions that included talk of the grasslands region in northeastern Montana.

E-mails and memos between high-ranking officials at the BLM, FWS and NPS show they held multiple meetings with Salazar’s chief of staff and Salazar to discuss the Treasured Landscapes.

In a Sept. 25, 2009, e-mail, Salazar’s chief of staff, Tom Strickland, notified top Interior Department officials of an Oct. 2, 2009, meeting in which agency officials were to present specific initiatives for the Treasured Landscapes agenda. According to the e-mail, officials with the National Park Service planned to provide ideas “for the creation of new national parks and/or monuments. …”

In an interview last week, BLM Director Robert Abbey confirmed that the leaked monument memo was a portion of a vision document that he, along with key BLM staffers, prepared over the course of last summer and fall at Salazar’s request.

“When I became the director of the Bureau of Land Management, the secretary asked me to put together a vision that I would have for the public lands that are managed by the Bureau of Land Management,” Abbey said. “I put together what I believed to be some specific directions where I think the public lands can be recognized for the values that they really hold.”

 Abbey said the document stemmed from a series of internal brainstorming sessions among top BLM staffers and was never intended for public consumption.

“A lot of times people look at these public lands and they think they’re being managed for just grazing or mining or oil and gas development. What I wanted to demonstrate was that, while we value all these uses, and they’re important to the nation’s economy, there are other values on the public lands that we also manage these lands for,” Abbey said. “Part of that vision we put together included a wide array of those values and how we could possibly manage for those values and multiple uses in the future.”

Abbey said the leaked memo was taken out of context and “has been blown way out of proportion for what the document was intended to do.”

 

“We do not have a strategy in place to implement any of the ideas that were generated through our own vision document,” Abbey said. “What seems to have gotten lost in all the rhetoric and criticism is the fact that I also said before any designation of a national monument, that we would need to go out and assess the support we might have from Congress and certainly members of the public.”

Abbey said the Interior Department is in the process of engaging Americans on public lands issues through a series of listening sessions, called America’s Great Outdoors. The first such listening session was held June 2 in Bozeman.

“We said, ‘let’s go out and open up a dialogue with the American public and hear directly from them what’s important to them,’” Abbey said.

However, department e-mails show that some high-level Interior agency officials met with conservationists from Montana much earlier in the process.

According to Interior Department records, two representatives of the World Wildlife Fund met with Will Shafroth, deputy assistant secretary for the department’s Fish and Wildlife and Parks division, in late July to talk about BLM lands in Montana.

Weeks later, the same two WWF officials met with Ned Farquhar, deputy assistant secretary of Land and Minerals Management, to talk about “ongoing efforts to promote conservation of wildlife species that cross the border from the Grasslands National Park in Canada to the adjacent BLM lands in the U.S., and opportunities to improve wildlife habitat on the U.S. side,” the records indicate.

An e-mail from Gina DeFerrari, WWF’s senior policy advisor, states that the American Prairie Foundation has acquired ranches north of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge “with a vision of creating a large prairie-based wildlife reserve.”

DeFerrari was on leave and unavailable for comment last week, but Steve Forrest, WWF’s manager of restoration science for the Northern Great Plains program, said it’s no secret that WWF and other conservation groups have worked with federal agencies for years on ways to protect Montana’s northern prairie for wildlife conservation.

However, Forrest said the goal of the conservation group was never to create a new national monument in Montana.

“The idea is not necessarily to preserve (Montana’s northern prairie), but to look at what the combination of factors are that are affecting (wildlife) population trends, and then recommend various activities to reverse those or stop them,” Forrest said.

He added that his group has worked with the Interior Department on ways to improve wildlife and habitat management strategies in the region as far back as the days of the Bush administration. He said conservation groups also have worked with state and provincial governments and private land owners throughout the region with the goal of unifying management strategies to preserve diminishing wildlife species.

“The idea is to get Interior agencies like the BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service … to collaborate more effectively about managing larger landscapes,” Forrest said.

That goal could be undermined by the recent hubbub over possible new national monument designations.

“We never had any discussions about a national monument. … In fact, we’re not so sure that monument designation would be a very good thing,” Forrest said. “We were as surprised — and to some degree dismayed — as anyone else when this came out.”

Forrest said ranchers and farmers who might have been open to participating in incentive programs to protect their lands may now be suspicious that it could be a step toward monument designation.

Tester said ranchers have done a good job over the past century in managing the resource base in Eastern Montana, and he wants to see that continue. However, he said that doesn’t mean sensitive grassland ecosystems shouldn’t be protected if local communities support the idea.

 

“If maintaining the grasslands in Eastern Montana is important … if it’s ground-up collaboration and you get solid support on the ground, then let’s look at opportunities, if that’s the goal,” Tester said. “That being said, I happen to farm ground that was once grass, and I’d like to keep farming it.”

 Source: Great Falls Tribune

Posted by Kaci Switzer

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