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Save the Missouri River Breaks

In 1806 Meriweather Lewis wrote of the White Cliffs area, "the hills and river cliffs which we passed today exhibit a most romantic appearance."

The 149-mile Missouri Breaks still retain much of their natural look in that Lewis and Clark would immediately recognize today what they actually saw almost 200 years ago. Despite the grazed-out lack of riparian vegetation and the fact that no cottonwood reproduction survives the teeth of cattle and sheep overgrazing, the free-flowing, meandering river still survives and the remnants of ancient cottonwood groves still draw their lifeblood from the wetlands along the river. The flowing river, wind and rain, and the annual freezing and thawing combine to erode strange rock formations. Volcanic peaks dot a geological landscape of sandstone, limestone and shale with dikes that rise to vertical cliffs and pinnacles where eagles make their nests.

Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument Map

For a larger map click here.

Wild & Scenic River Designation

In the 1960s the National Park Service tried to make the Missouri River Breaks area into a National Park but failed. Then, in 1973, Senator Lee Metcalf conducted hearings and by 1976 he was able to bring this vision of Montana into reality when he led a successful effort to designate the 149-mile Missouri Breaks from Coal Banks Landing downstream to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge boundary as a Wild and Scenic River.

As it turned out, the designation provided no lasting protection beyond preventing dam construction. It covered only a narrow corridor and did not include publicly-owned uplands and roadless areas that comprise an essential part of the total river ecosystem. It provided little measures to maintain the river in its natural state.

The river was not protected from commercialization and road-building. The Bureau of Land Management will do little to control excessive cattle grazing, motorized use and further erosion of the wild values of the land. Current protection must be expanded beyond the narrow Wild and Scenic corridor. A different management is needed, one that provides restoration of riparian areas degraded by livestock, keeps the primitive nature of the area intact, and maintains the solitude of the area.

National Monument Designation

In 1999 then Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt sent out a strong recommendation for increased protection of the area. Subsequently the Clinton Administration designated it as the “Upper Missouri River National Monument” which will adequately protect the area if a current effort to weaken the rules and shrink the boundaries are not successful.

The monument boundary encompasses over 375,000 acres of federal BLM land, 39,000 acres of Montana State land and 80,000 acres of private land. Management regulations only apply to the BLM land. Traditional uses within the monument will continue, while off-road vehicle use will be limited to designated routes. Future natural gas development will be restricted to about 15% of the public land where valid existing rights already exist. Designation of a national monument under the Antiquities Act can only be revised or eliminated by congressional action. The 102 diamond mining claims existing in the area will be recognized although new mining claims would be banned.

The 15-volunteer Central Montana Resource Advisory Committee of the BLM conducted informational meetings throughout the Missouri Breaks area. At that time Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt asked the RAC to analyze the public input, look at the facts and bring management recommendations to the BLM. From these recommendations the BLM prescribed a National Monument. Presidential designation of a National Monument by executive order was most practical since Senator Burns and Congressman Rehberg would block congressional action.

Effects of Grazing in the Missouri Breaks

Domestic livestock grazing takes place over the entire area. Hot-season grazing during July, August and September is the primary reason for the lack of riparian vegetation and regeneration of willow and cottonwood. This is supported by a study begun in 1995 by the BLM range researchers. The study showed that many more seedlings survive in areas that are not grazed. Ranchers are reluctant to keep their stock away from the river. Regeneration is absent while riverbanks are broken down by cattle watering in the river. Cattle can be seen standing in the river in October adding to the high nutrient level. “Undaunted Stewardship,” funded partly by the federal government, is the stockgrowers propaganda program. The name plays off Stephen Ambrose’s book “Undaunted Courage” on Lewis and Clark and attempts to excuse how ranchers and farmers have overgrazed the Missouri Breaks area. The BLM is now trying to work with the problem of 55 grazing allotments covering 229,423 acres in the river corridor.

Summing Up

The Missouri Breaks National Monument is a resource owned in common by all citizens. Montana has this brief moment in history to protect a valuable part of America’s heritage, a remnant of one of our greatest transcontinental rivers. Special interests and personal as well as political motivations threaten to undermine this effort.

With the 200-year anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition approaching many people will visit to follow in the “Corps of Discovery’s” footsteps. On July 2, 2001, the Lewistown City Commission endorsed the designation of the 149 miles reach of the Missouri Breaks as a National Monument with 377,346 acres as a natural gift protected for the nation. ~

See Missouri River Breaks National Monument Questioned by the Governor

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