LEWISTOWN – Ranchers in eastern Montana are digging in for what they said Friday would be a protracted fight against a tentative Interior Department proposal to designate more than a dozen new national monuments across the West.
At a forum hosted by Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, rural landowners said the proposal threatened to fragment their communities and take away ranching opportunities.
“Shouldn’t we have the right to say no to a national monument?” asked Phillips County rancher Mike Ereaux. “Not just no, but hell no.”
An internal Interior Department memo revealed in February that 14 sites in nine states were being considered for possible monuments. That included 2.5 million acres of northeastern Montana prairie land proposed as a possible bison range.
Also included in the memo were sites in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, California, Nevada, Arizona, Oregon and Washington.
Under the Antiquities Act of 1906, the president can unilaterally designate national monuments without approval from Congress.
But Republicans including Rehberg have hammered the Obama administration over the Interior memo, characterizing it as part of a secret plan hatched without involvement from communities near the potential sites.
Rehberg told attendees of Friday’s forum, held at the Lewistown Civic Center, that he does not trust the administration on the issue.
Interior Department spokesman Matt Lee-Ashley said the agency was continuing to weigh future monument designations, but that none would move forward without local input.
South of Malta, Mont., rancher Vicki Olson is organizing landowners and local businesses to oppose the monument idea, which she said might create more service-oriented jobs but at the expense of agriculture.
The newly formed Montana Community Preservation Alliance already has collected signatures from 3,000 people supporting their efforts, Olson said.
For Olson and others, the national monument issue is virtually indistinguishable from a private effort to create a vast, multimillion acre prairie reserve in the same region of Montana.
That effort is led by the American Prairie Foundation, an offshoot of the World Wildlife Fund.
American Prairie Foundation President Sean Garrity, who participated in Friday’s event, said he had not decided whether to support a new Montana monument designation. But he urged others to give the idea a chance.
Because the agriculture industry is heavily subsidized with federal money, Garrity said Montana ranchers owed the government “a fair hearing.”
However, many in eastern Montana still harbor bitter feelings over the 2001 creation of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. That designation was made by then-President Bill Clinton during his final days in office.
“I guarantee you there will be influence or pressure placed upon the outgoing president to do the same,” Rehberg said.
The Obama administration is responding to the criticism in part by sending the director of the Bureau of Land Management to Malta next month to address residents’ concerns. BLM Director Bob Abbey’s visit is scheduled for Sept. 16.
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