Friday, January 2, 2009

New BLM Resource Management Rules Leaves Little Protection for National Monument

By MATTHEW BROWN Associated Press Writer

Federal officials have approved a new management regime for the vast Missouri River Breaks National Monument, closing some roads and backcountry airstrips but still not satisfying conservation groups that sought more sweeping restrictions.

The 590-square mile monument, created in 2001 by President Bill Clinton, cuts through the remote and rugged middle of Montana, along a route explored by Lewis and Clark in the early 1800s.

The new rules govern river and vehicle access, grazing, oil and gas drilling and other uses within the monument. They are laid out in a Resource Management plan that took more than six years to complete and prompted more than 65,000 public comments.

The rules will go into effect after a 30-day appeal period, said Monument Manager Gary Slagel with the Bureau of Land Management.

"This provides opportunities for the public to enjoy the monument, while protecting the resources within the monument," Slagel said.

Of approximately 600 miles of roads that crisscross the monument, 201 miles will be closed and another 111 miles will open only seasonally. Four backcountry airstrips will close, leaving six. And motorized watercraft will be restricted to just three days a week on a 57-mile stretch of the Missouri.

Slagel said it could take two years for the changes to go into effect.

But conservation groups said the BLM had missed a chance to preserve the unique natural beauty of a sprawling, virtually uninhabited corridor along the Missouri River. They wanted more roads closed and air strips eliminated and fewer motorized watercraft on the Missouri.

"This plan treats the monument no differently than any other piece of ground that the BLM manages," Dennis Tighe, a Great Falls attorney and president of Friends of the Upper Missouri River National Monument, wrote in a statement.

Tighe said his group will appeal Tuesday's decision to the BLM's parent agency, the Department of Interior. He said a lawsuit was also possible, although that would not come until after the group further evaluates the new plan.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer had also weighed in against the plan.

In a March letter to BLM State Director Gene Terland, Schweitzer highlighted additional roads and one airstrip that the state wanted closed and other roads that should be kept open. He wrote that the BLM was not meeting the goal of balancing public access with preserving "some of the wildest country on all the Great Plains.

Schweitzer called on the agency to set a "higher standard" for the monument and asked for a five-year interim plan to address travel issues. The BLM said in response that the state's concerns had been considered in the development of the new rules.

A spokeswoman said the governor's office "had hoped (the BLM) would take our suggestions seriously."

"We'll continue to look for ways that we can work together to create those opportunities as we move forward," said spokeswoman Sarah Elliot.

During the crafting of those rules over the last several years, livestock interests successfully pushed to maintain grazing leases for ranchers. Approximately 125 square miles of private land are interspersed within the monument, including ranches whose owners run their livestock on both public and private parcels.

Slagel pointed out that Clinton's 2001 proclamation establishing the monument said "grazing permits and all other land laws ... shall continue to apply" after its creation.

Under the rules announced Tuesday, the BLM has authority to modify grazing permits by closing areas or altering the dates when they can be used if livestock are causing environmental damage.

The new rules also preserve oil and gas leases that predated the monument's creation. Slagel estimated that companies hold leases on 43,000 acres for energy development, but said there has been little push to date to develop those tracts.

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