Montana conservationists to Zinke: Protect Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument

The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument is among two-dozen such areas nationwide targeted for possible elimination or downsizing by President Donald Trump. (Tom Keith/Last Best News)

Montana outfitters and guides have allied with historians and tribal leaders to demand protection of the Upper Missouri River Breaks and other national monuments that hold cultural, scientific and historical value.

Timed to coincide with the late June meeting of the Western Governors Association in Whitefish, the effort comes in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order targeting 24 national monuments for possible downsizing or elimination.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is responsible for conducting the review and making the recommendations. He is scheduled to address the governors on Tuesday. Zinke previously represented Montana in the U.S. House, after serving one term as a state legislator from Whitefish.

Called Hold Our Ground, the conservation group hopes to encourage all Montanans to join their call for protection of the Upper Missouri River Breaks. The Interior Department is taking public comment on the national monument’s future until July 10.

So this weekend, the group debuted advertisements on television and social media, as well as billboards in Missoula and Whitefish, urging ZInke to “keep Missouri River Breaks the way it is – a national monument.”

Already, Zinke has recommended reducing the size of Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, which was designated a national monument by former President Barack Obama.

“We now know that Secretary Zinke is willing to reduce protection for a place as culturally and historically remarkable as Bears Ears,” said Larry Epstein, a retired Glacier County attorney and former president of Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. “Montanans won’t stand for that kind of meddling in the Upper Missouri River Breaks. The Breaks has remained unchanged for thousands of years, and we want to keep it that way.”

Epstein was among the Montanans who worked for designation of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in 2001, and is featured in Hold Our Grounds’ advertisements and videos.

The ads also feature Fort Benton river outfitter Nicolle Fugere, educator and Crow tribal member Shane Doyle, and Hilary Hutcheson, host of Trout TV and owner of Lary’s Fly and Supply in Columbia Falls.

President Bill Clinton designated the Breaks just before leaving office. The 590-square-mile monument includes federal, state and private land that surrounds 149 miles of the Missouri River.

“This review disregards the fact that hundreds of Montanans, including myself, spent years working together to protect this stretch of the Missouri and the lands along it,” said Epstein. “Polls and comments showed then – as they do now – that Montanans overwhelmingly want this landscape protected. Rehashing an argument that was settled almost 20 years ago is a waste of time and taxpayer money.”

About 120 ranchers, farmers and other landowners who live in or use the Breaks favor downsizing the monument.

A survey of Montanans released earlier this week by the Montana Wildlife Federation showed 59 percent of respondents oppose eliminating the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument or reducing its size, with 28 percent supporting a reduction.

poll released earlier this year by Colorado College showed that 77 percent of Montanans support existing monuments.

The Breaks is also an economic driver for the area.

“The monument attracts 130,000 people every year who pump millions into local economies, and they come for the opportunities to camp where Lewis and Clark did and connect with thousands of years-worth of history,” says Nicolle Fugere, owner of Missouri River Outfitters in Fort Benton.

“I bought my business this year thinking these opportunities would remain because the Breaks is already protected as a national monument,” she said. “But Trump’s executive order threatens to strip that protection and hurt the businesses and surrounding communities that rely on the certainty of that protection.”

Fugere sent a letter to Zinke in May inviting him to see the monument firsthand on a float trip with her and Dayton Duncan, writer and producer of the PBS series “Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery.” Zinke’s office did not respond to the invitation.

“Secretary Zinke is saying that he wants locals to have a voice in this review and in the designation of monuments,” said Fugere. “Well, I live about as close as you can to the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, and my business is directly tied to it. But he has yet to show an interest in what I or other business owners in Fort Benton have to say about the monument.”

According to a recent Headwaters Economics report, communities around the monument saw a 23 percent increase of real per-capita income from 2001 to 2015.

Tribal members also place great value in the Breaks and are a key audience of the advertising campaign.

“For over 10,000 years, people have been coming to the Missouri River Breaks for the same reason: to be inspired, to learn from the land,” said Shane Doyle, educator and Crow tribal member. “My tribe and others have fasted, prayed, and hunted there, and there are ample artifacts protected by the monument that evoke that history.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke listens to a presentation about the merits of a monument offshore of Massachusetts, part of his National Monuments review process, in Boston, earlier this month. (REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

“If the Breaks loses monument protection, we could also lose touch with that history, with the story of how Montanans – Native American and European American – became who we are today.”

The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument was designated under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which is under attack by several lawmakers who have sponsored legislation to gut it, including Republican Sen. Steve Daines of Montana.

Hold Our Ground intends to fight any legislation aimed at weakening the Antiquities Act, which it considers a central pillar of Theodore Roosevelt’s public lands legacy.

“The Antiquities Act is one of the best tools we have for preserving, protecting, and perpetuating the heritage we share as Montanans and Americans,” Doyle said. “We’re here to send a message that Montanans won’t tolerate any attempts to weaken that law, which has played such an important role in our public lands tradition. We’re here to hold our ground, and that starts with the Missouri River Breaks.”

Sherry Devlin is a longtime Missoula journalist who writes occasional stories for Missoula Current.