(UPDATE 7/13/17: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has said his likely recommendation “will be to leave the Missouri Breaks as is,” adding,”I think it’s settled to a degree that I would rather not open up a wound that has been healed.”)
President Trump has ordered Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review whether more than 20 large areas designated as National Monuments should remain protected. The goal is to determine if monument status too greatly restricts access to public lands and economic activity, like timber cutting or oil and gas drilling.
The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in Montana is one of the areas under review. Nearly 400,000 acres in North Central Montana, it gained National Monument status in the very last days of the Clinton Administration, in 2001, cited for its historical significance and rare ecosystem. The law that made that possible, the American Antiquities Act of 1906, is only four paragraphs long, and just one of those paragraphs gives the President power to set aside land of historic or scientific interest as a national monument.
Matt Knox is a Montana rancher who’s been against National Monument status for the Montana site since talk of it started. Up on a bluff that’s part of his family ranch, the expansive view includes land which intersects and overlaps with the federally protected area.
Strong winds blow across the breaks — rough, broken land, deeply cut by the winding Missouri River. Think Western movies, bone dry gorges with a few stands of evergreens. Though, in early June, the land still holds onto a soft blue-green hue of spring.
Knox says he and other ranchers want to manage this land as they have for generations, without a lot of government oversight.
“We cuss the county commissioners, we cuss the state legislature, we cuss the governor,” he said, “and we reserve our, most of our cussing for the federal government.”
He’d like Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to shrink the footprint of the monument, saying the Antiquities Act is supposed to protect specific sites like the Statue of Liberty or Gettysburg. “The original intent was not to set aside huge swaths of land,” he said.
Knox would be ok with protecting, say, the famous sandstone White Cliffs or important Native American battle sites. River guide Nicolle Fugere says that’s too narrow.
“I think it’s really important to find a place that is as it was and is unchanged,” she said, “and that is the Missouri River.” Fugere owns Missouri River Outfitters, and paddles tourists in canoes to ancient rock drawings, remains of tipi camps, and historic vistas.
She gestures toward an area of the National Monument that’s important to the story of Westward Expansion. “You go down there and you see the same rocks that were described in Lewis and Clark’s journals,” she said.
Fugere worked summers in the area for years, and bought the guide business a few months ago. She’s now part of the state’s multi-billion dollar tourism economy. She’s afraid of the area losing protected status.
Chris Mehl directs research at a Montana firm called Headwaters Economics. He looked at 17 National Monuments in the West, before and after they received the federal designation. He says the local economies diversified, and expanded.
“All net new jobs are in services,” he said. “Everything from healthcare and accountants and lawyers on the higher paying end, to folks who work in a hotel or the tourism industry on the lower paying end.”
But the number of people who work in agriculture around those areas is shrinking. That would likely be true with or without National Monument status, yet for ranchers like Matt Knox the switch from an economy that makes use of the land – to one that relies on people looking at it – is disheartening. Back on his property, Knox just wants to hold onto his way of life. His worst-case scenario: The Upper Missouri River Breaks goes from National Monument to National Park.
“A National Park would be a disaster for us,” he said. “We don’t want to be an inn-holder in a National Park and flip hamburgers for a living. That’s not what we do that’s not who we are.”
He says scaling back the acreage covered by the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument would send a signal that ranchers like him can have a future in the area, working the land.