BILLINGS -- Though there is no official announcement yet, there will be no changes to the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said.
Zinke, speaking with The Billings Gazette on Saturday, confirmed his late June commitment to leaving the 774-square-mile national monument as is. The central Montana monument near Landusky is one of 27 monuments established during the previous 20 years by presidents using the Antiquities Act. President Donald Trump ordered the monuments reviewed in May.
“We’re going to announce shortly on the Missouri Breaks that we intend to leave it the way it is,” Zinke said.
The former U.S. representative from Montana said the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument decision was effectively made in early June after consulting with U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and hearing from Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.
In the month that followed, Interior officials looked at whether designated roads into the monument area were being maintained and whether public access, hunting and fishing opportunities were preserved.
Department of the Interior received thousands of letters concerning the monument. Most comments submitted supported preserving the monument, which stretches 149 miles down the Missouri River and abuts the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.
Former President Bill Clinton created the monument Jan. 17, 2001, less than a week before leaving office. Opponents say the last-minute proclamation was a way to dodge public outcry from people who considered the declaration a grab by the federal government.
The Antiquities Act allows presidents to set aside objects of historic or scientific interest to prevent their destruction. The law was created in 1906 to guard against looting of sacred American Indian sites.
When designating the central Montana monument, Clinton said the Breaks is the only major portion of the Missouri River to be protected and preserved in its natural, free-flowing state. The area also is the premier segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.
Lewis and Clark spent three weeks in 1805 traveling the area, which includes rolling grasslands, white cliffs, rugged badlands and remnants of ancient cottonwood groves. The explorers journals described the wildlife, geology of the river banks and Native American cultures.
The review of monuments came about in response to Republican lawmakers from Utah who accused former President Barack Obama of abusing the Antiquities Act last fall to create the Bears Ears National Monument, which includes several prehistoric sites and artifacts. The site also includes private property.
In June, Zinke recommended Trump reduce the size of the 1.3 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument. Federal land removed from the monument would remain public, but would not be protected under monument designation.
There are also thousands of acres of private property within the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument boundary. Some of those landowners say that although the 16 years since the designation have been inconsequential, they worry about future restrictions. They worry that the monument designation will become the foundation for lawsuits about how land within the monument is used.
Although the public comment period on the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument ended in early July, pro-monument groups continue encouraging Montanans to contact Zinke and Daines about leaving the monument as is.
The Montana Wilderness Association is running save-the-monument ads in Billings and Missoula TV markets.
“As far as we know, it hasn’t been formally taken off the list” for monument review, said Ted Brewer of the Montana Wilderness Association. “That leads us to assume that they’re not done yet.”