Mistrust of the purported plans by the Interior Department to create a grasslands national monument — possibly with bison — on Montana's open plains was expressed by speaker after speaker at a meeting here Friday.
"Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me," Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg, a Republican, said. "I don't trust 'em."
Interior Department and Bureau of Land Management officials insist that no concrete plans are in place to create new national monuments in the West.
Yeah, right — that was the message Montanans sent at the two-hour panel discussion, which Rehberg convened at the Lewistown Civic Center.
Rehberg said he wants public input on possible plans by the government to preserve lands across the West by creating national monuments, including a 2.5-million-acre grasslands refuge in northeastern Montana. The possibility was discussed in an internal Bureau of Land Management planning paper that has since been made public.
The meeting drew just more than 200 people, who filled the bleachers in the gymnasium. They heard speeches from a panel of county commissioners and people with ranching interests, who said they oppose a monument designation and urged the crowd to get informed — and ready for battle.
"I just hope you stay with us because it's going to be a fight that's worth fighting for," said Mike Ereaux, a rancher and the president of Phillips County Stockgrowers.
Residents, he added, had the right to say no to a monument.
"Not just no, but hell no," he said.
A 21-page "treasured landscape" memorandum drafted by top BLM officials that has turned up in the hands of the Congressional Western Caucus has residents worried about having a monument that they don't want be approved by presidential proclamation without local input.
It's happened before, they said.
President Bill Clinton used the federal Antiquities Act at the 11th hour of his administration to create the Missouri River Breaks National Monument in 2001 by presidential proclamation, a fact that was referred to several times Friday. That monument designation had its supporters, but none were speaking up Friday if they were present.
Use of the Antiquities Act, which allows the president to declare a monument without congressional input, was roundly criticized Friday by residents such as Big Sandy rancher Dana Darlington, who said it needs to be reformed so presidents can't act unilaterally.
Darlington, calling the initiative a "treasured land grab," urged residents to get involved to curb the "sweeping" plan.
"When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty," said Darlington, quoting Thomas Jefferson.
An area stretching form the Bitter Creek Wilderness Study Area to the Canadian border is mentioned as a possible national monument in the planning document, which states that the northern Montana prairie contains some of the largest unplowed areas of grasslands in the world, as well as some of the best wildlife habitats on the Great Plains. The cross-boundary conservation unit would provide an opportunity to restore prairie wildlife and to establish a new bison range, the document states.
Seven of the eight people on Rehberg's panel spoke against the idea, but Sean Gerrity, president of the American Prairie Foundation, withheld judgment. APF runs a growing private grassland preserve in northeastern Montana, where genetically pure bison roam.
Gerrity said an actual proposal to designate the area as a monument has not been made public, which makes it too soon to form an opinion.
"It seems to me we owe them a fair hearing once a proposal shows up," said Gerrity, noting APF is grateful for the subsidies it receives from the federal government in the form of inexpensive fees to use public land for grazing.
Gerrity said he first heard about the "treasured landscapes" last spring and spent time in Washington, D.C., with other landowners at a meeting in which BLM Director Bob Abbey and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar discussed the idea.
He was peppered with questions by residents about the prairie reserve, including its ties with the World Wildlife Fund, a conservation organization that supports the Montana reserve. WWF has been criticized for its alleged conversations with Interior Department officials about the proposed monuments.
Martha Kauffman, Bozeman-based managing director of the Northern Great Plains Program for WWF, said the group isn't in collusion with government land managers, as some people have suggested.
When the organization heard about the treasured landscape proposal in the spring, it inquired about what it was, then offered suggestions on land in Montana it considers really important, she said.
"I think it's good for people to say what they're concerned about," she said following the meeting. "I would like to encourage people to talk with me and others rather than surmise."
Kauffman told the crowd that Western Montana has received most of the conservation focus in Montana, while the eastern part of the state is overlooked.
"We like it that way," somebody in the crowd shouted.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar downplayed the internal memo when he appeared before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee earlier this year.
"There are no plans that we have to move forward," Salazar said, describing the memo as the result of an informal dialogue among agency employees.
But members of the panel said the details outlined in the document demonstrate that far more than just brainstorming is under way.
Phillips County Commissioner Lesley Robinson said she is worried about the loss of ranching families from the area should the government begin to purchase private land interspersed with BLM land for a monument. The county also depends heavily on natural gas development, which a monument could curtail, she said.
"The impact to Phillips County would be very large," she said.
The county invited BLM Director Abbey to Montana, and Abbey accepted. He is scheduled to speak Sept. 16 at Malta High School, Robinson said.
Robinson, expressing concern that environmental groups had a hand in the planning of the treasured landscapes, said any proposal should be locally generated.
Blaine County Commissioner Art Kleinjan said a monument might be a good idea to protect an object such as Pompey's Pillar — the famous sandstone butte signed by explorer William Clark. However, a monument designation is a farce for the vast rolling hills and rivers of northeastern Montana, which ranchers and farmers have preserved for generations, Kleinjan said.
"We kept this country the way it is, and there's no reason you need a monument to keep it beautiful," he said.