FORT BENTON, Mont. (CN) — The Missouri River flows mightily past Front Street and a row of shops in the tiny town of Fort Benton, Montana.
Just across the street from the big river, Christina Taylor sat on a bench outside the hardware store on a warm June morning and waved at a friend. She politely said hello — but a palpable tension hung between the two.
The residents of Fort Benton are deeply divided in their feelings about the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.
Former President Bill Clinton signed an executive order on January 17, 2001, in the final days of his presidency to create the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. The Breaks area is part of the nation’s system of National Conservation Lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
President Trump earlier this year ordered Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to review dozens of national monuments in America and determine whether they should be downsized, eliminated or remain as is. After Zinke, a Montana native, recommended that the Bears Ears monument in Utah be downsized, tensions again flared between factions on both sides of the monument debate in Montana.
Secretary Zinke said this week he will likely recommend to President Trump that the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument remain as it is — 377,000 acres of raw, mostly undeveloped federal land along the upper Missouri River where the Lewis and Clark expedition explored over 200 years ago. The expedition passed through the wide spot in the river bottom that became Fort Benton, the inward river post 2,900 miles upstream from St. Louis. Here, fur traders sold their goods to the new residents of the frontier, and it was here that the state of Montana was born.
The stances taken by the two sides of the monument issue reveal something deeper, Taylor said: do they or do they not support President Trump and his goals? When the monument was created, opinions seemed fairly split, with some people claiming the monument’s creation was a federal overreach, while others applauded President Clinton for helping protect some of America’s frontier wildlands that have remained largely intact since the Lewis and Clark expedition came through in 1804.
“The monument has pretty much divided the community among the people who really like it and the ones who don’t want it,” Taylor said.
She said the monument was created without the full consent of local farmers and ranchers – many of whom have private land within the monument’s boundaries. Despite the monument’s 2001 creation, a plan to govern how the monument would be managed did not emerge until seven years later in 2008.
While monument opponents say it restricted how much federal land ranchers could use to graze cattle or how developers could pursue their oil and natural gas leases, the management plan dictates that those activities be maintained at their existing levels.
“We were promised nothing would be done until all the input was finished,” Taylor said. “That did not happen. People were waking up the next morning and finding that their private property was now in a monument.”
Along with its attributes for scenery, recreation and solitude, the land in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument is well-suited for wheat farming, cattle ranching and natural gas development.
Roughly 32,477 acres of leased farm and ranch land are within the monument. About 12,782 acres have been actively developed for gas and oil or have moderate-to-high potential for gas development, according to the monument’s resource management plan.
The plan says 34 gas wells could still be drilled in the monument, along with 21 well leases that are within half a mile of it. With a success rate of 35 percent throughout the area and an average estimated recovery of 390,000 million cubic feet per well, the plan allows an additional 8.2 billion cubic feet of natural gas production within the monument.
The largest gas developers in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument are Klabzuba Oil and Gas Inc., Devon Energy, and Macum Energy Inc., according to the monument’s management plan.
Until the 1960s and 1970s, not much drilling and exploration in the monument occurred, due to low gas prices and lack of pipeline infrastructure. Natural gas was discovered in the area mainly as a byproduct of oil exploration in the 1920s near Winifred, Montana.
But 1971 brought a sizable natural gas discovery just to the north of the monument study area. Continued exploration revealed more commercial natural gas deposits, which led to further infrastructure built in and around the monument.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, seismic exploration in and around the monument helped developers gain a more accurate understanding of the available gas and oil deposits.
With infrastructure now in place and gas prices higher, developers have an economic incentive to further explore and exploit natural gas resources in the monument, according to the resource management plan.
A total of 869 wells had been drilled prior to the monument’s designation. The first well in the monument study area was drilled in 1939. Since then, 138 wells have been drilled in the monument, with an additional 86 wells drilled within 1/2 a mile of the monument, according to the BLM.
The overall success rate of wells in the monument area ranges from 18 percent to 35 percent. It is estimated that the average new discovery will yield 390,000 million cubic feet of gas, according to the BLM’s management plan.
On the recreational side, the BLM says about 9,000 people boat the 149 miles of Missouri River between Fort Benton and the James Kipp Recreation Area each year. The monument’s management plan implemented a usage fee on these boaters, with the money going to local ranchers to lease their private riverfront land for campsites.
While opponents say the monument interferes with ranching, the BLM’s resource management plan claims there is not “a measurable effect on the ranching industry in the five-county area.”
In 2005, four years after the monument was established, there were 38,000 monument grazing allotments, with about 204,000 beef cows on ranches in the study area outside of the monument. The forage provided by monument grazing represents 1 to 2 percent of the nutritional needs of cattle in the five-county area, with about 6,300 cattle supported by partial grazing on monument lands.
Prior to the creation of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, the upper Missouri River already enjoyed a high level of protection. In 1976, during Montana’s conservation boom, the river was given federal Wild and Scenic River status, one of the highest levels of river protection, which manages development and recreation.
The river in this area is historically significant not just because of the Lewis and Clark expedition, but because of Native American ties to it as well.
The Nez Perce Indians were forced from their homelands in north-central Idaho, southwest Washington and northeast Oregon as white settlers began moving in. The first battle between the Nez Perce and settlers was in 1877, and several more battles ensued. About 750 Nez Perce Indians fled 1,200 miles through Idaho, Wyoming and Montana in an attempt to reach Canada. The Nez Perce arrived at the Missouri River in the present-day monument and crossed at Cow Island, an established steamboat landing. After the Natives were denied a request for provisions, they chased away the steamboat landing attendants, stole their merchandise and burned the remainder before they continued their flight to Canada. They ultimately surrendered on Sept. 30, 1877, when Chief Joseph proclaimed his famous words, “I will fight no more forever.”
When the monument was first suggested in the late 1990s, people said the river was already protected with Wild and Scenic designation and the additional monument status reaching farther into BLM lands around the river was not needed.
Taylor, who helps run a local volunteer fire department along the Missouri River, said monument status hasn’t been the boon to local economies that proponents said it would be.
“It really hasn’t brought in the people they were claiming it would,” she said. “It hasn’t brought in the economy as they said it was going to do. Yeah, we have visitors who come to go down the river, but we’ve always had that.”
Taylor may be in the minority when it comes to her skepticism about the monument. A January 2017 Conservation in the West poll conducted by Colorado College showed that 59 percent of 400 Montana voters interviewed wanted the existing national monument status of the Upper Missouri River Breaks in place. In a broader study, the Conservation in the West poll showed that 87 percent of survey respondents support maintaining the existing status of national monuments, including 68 percent of Republicans and 92 percent of Democrats.
But Taylor has been vehemently opposed to the monument since meeting with former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt in Fort Benton in 1997 when he was pushing for the its designation. “It was pretty much already a done deal,” she said, noting that her opinions went largely unheard. “Why do people everywhere else, in New York and California, have
more of a say than we do?
“We all got along pretty well before that,” she added. “Now, some of us don’t get along. There’s a lot of hard feelings now and it’s been going on for 20 years. It’s just a really touchy, touchy subject.
“Fort Benton will be Fort Benton even without the monument status. We’re always going to have the canoeists, hunters and fishermen. People still want to go down the river because Lewis and Clark went down the river — and the monument had nothing to do with it,” she said.
“They’re following Lewis and Clark. They’re not following the monument.”
But for Nicolle Fugere, who owns a river-outfitting business on the Missouri River in Fort Benton, the 149-mile Wild and Scenic portion of the upper Missouri River is crucial to her business. She says the monument attracts people to Montana from around the world.
Trump’s order to review national monuments raised concerns for Fugere about her livelihood and the legacy of protecting Montana’s land for future generations. She created Stand Our Ground, a conservation group dedicated to maintaining the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.
Fugere, a native of Billings, Montana, became familiar with the Missouri River as a teenager, working as a guide for Missouri River Outfitters — the business she bought one year ago. “The river was a constant in my life,” Fugere said. “I always came back to the river.”
Regardless of the inevitable tension, Fugere said conversations about the monument need to take place.
Many people, including local business owners in Fort Benton, were reluctant to be interviewed because of the tension between the two sides. “There are such hard feelings there,” Fugere said. “This should be brought up.”
She said she understands how traditional land users might have felt estranged from the monument designation process.
“Ranchers do a great job conserving their own property, so I understand it’s sort of offensive when groups come in and tell them how to manage things,” Fugere said. “It’s sad that ranchers were told how to run their land when they are great stewards of the land. There’s a fear of what may change in the future, and that’s very understandable. The monument designation was a big deal when it happened. It’s been settled, it’s been at peace.”
As a business owner, Fugere doesn’t think the monument has meant a great deal in increased business for her, but she said she thinks the designation tends to improve surrounding communities.
Her business takes hundreds of people down the Missouri River each year on guided or outfitted trips. Most of her clients, she said, are against removing the monument designation.
Like Taylor, she believed what is at issue is not only how public lands should be managed, but the politics of a Trump presidency.
“A president taking away what another president has set aside, it’s just not right,” Fugere said. And as decisions get made on federal lands in Washington, D.C., it affects how neighbors get along in far away Fort Benton. “It’s that bug that just won’t go away,” Fugere said. “It’s at our back door once again. We just keep getting hit. It’s as if we have to take a side. You can’t live in the middle. There’s no ground in the middle.
“And why break something that’s working?” she asked.
Monument proponents on the upper Missouri River seem to reflect the ideology of the new West: resource conservation and responsible development. A traditional farming and ranching town, Fort Benton is becoming more progressive, with younger people putting down roots alongside families who have been there for generations, living and working off the land — some of the land theirs, some of it public.
Shaun Carrier was born and raised in nearby Great Falls, Montana, a town that earned its name when the Lewis and Clark expedition encountered “the great falls of the Missouri.”
Carrier now owns the Wake Cup Cafe in downtown Fort Benton. The Wake Cup is a popular eatery and coffee shop, and Carrier said his business relies on local farmers and ranchers — and the tourism generated from the nearby national monument.
Carrier is an outspoken proponent of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. He easily lists the visitors from the countries around the world that visited his shop in the last month.
When news broke this spring that the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument was being reviewed, Carrier traveled to Washington, D.C., to urge Montana’s congressional delegation to keep the land protected. Carrier said people wanting to reduce or eliminate the monument needed to cut through the rhetoric and address the facts: for instance, the monument did not swallow up private land and it did not reduce the amount of grazing or natural gas leases.
“I understand the fear, but there has to be substantiation,” Carrier said. He added that President Trump’s review of monuments that have been in place for years “is no model for decision-making at this level. We have this system in place for a reason.
“I am not anti-ranching, minerals or industry,” he added. “I recognize the role they play in our economy on a local, national and global scale. But we need to look beyond that, to the next generation.”
Carrier says research shows that residents of communities near national monuments earn an average of $4,000 more per capita per year than rural communities not near national monuments.
“I think that’s true here,” he said. “[Monuments] act as economic drivers.”
His shop opened in 2004, three years after the national monument was designated. The Wake Cup Cafe caught the wave of rising enthusiasm for the national monument, and his business has done nothing but grow. “This shop started as a 20-seat sandwich shop,” he said. “We’re now 99 seats. I’ve had constant and consistent growth. That’s pretty remarkable growth in a town of 1,800 people. I don’t hesitate to say the monument has played a role in that.”
The upper Missouri River and the national monument offer isolation and solitude like no other place in the world, Carrier says. “You can stand in a place where nobody has stood for 200 years,” Carrier said. “If you’ve never experienced that, it’s a very unique thing.”
Although Zinke has said he will recommend maintaining the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, he has also temporarily suspended the local organizations that provide public input on management of the monument — the Resource Advisory Councils. “He’s removing the only vein of local consistency,” Carrier said.
The people who come to Fort Benton to experience the adventure of the river stay in local hotels, eat locally and hire local guides. “If I had to take away the river traffic I would have to downsize considerably. I have long-term jobs and growth that … depend on this land being respected,” Carrier said.
The river bisects a large, raw swath of public federal land in north-central Montana. Long stretches of the river have no bridges and must be crossed by county-operated ferries. In mid-June, ferry operator Don Sorensen worked at his mercantile up the dusty road from the river while he waited for calls on his loudspeaker from people who wanted to cross.
Lyons, Colorado, resident John Ryan was launching his canoe in Fort Benton as the afternoon winds were kicking up. The river was moving at about 14,000 cubic feet per second — fast and high — as his family loaded their canoes to make an eight-day, 149-mile journey down the Wild and Scenic section of the Missouri River to the C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.
He hoped when he got off the river in a week the monument status would not have changed. “I’d like to see it stay the way it is,” he said. “An acre of wilderness is infinitely more valuable than a parking lot.”
Grant Spicer arrived in Fort Benton from Calgary, Alberta, to explore the historic connection between the two towns. When traders were setting up in Fort Benton as the steamship transportation corridor opened in the mid-1800s, the “Whoopup Trail” between Calgary and Fort Benton was a crucial link for supplies. “I came here for Fort Benton and the river,” Spicer said. “If it’s natural gas they’re looking for, why don’t they just buy it from us right next door in Canada? Why they would want to destroy natural beauty for that, I’m not sure.”
Montanans, too, are enamored with this stretch of the Missouri River.
On a warm June morning earlier this year near the tiny town of Loma, Montana, the river put-in at Woods Bottom was bustling with three couples getting their gear ready for a six-day float down the Missouri.
Peter McNair, from Bozeman, Montana, has floated this section of the Missouri River since 1969, when he first brought high school students here to experience firsthand American history through traces of the nation’s earliest explorers and Natives.
“I love the state, and I especially love this part,” he said. “It’s a wonderful place. It’s gorgeous, wild, big and beautiful. There’s just a lot of space and quietness, and all you hear is water, birds and wind. It’s delightful.
“It goes through the absolute heart of the state, from the mountains to the prairies. It’s phenomenal.”
McNair is an advocate for maintaining the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. “I think it’s crucial to have as much protection for every part of Montana as possible, to not alter it and make it overly developed in any form whatsoever.”
One local business owner who asked not to be identified said the increase in river traffic on the upper Missouri River had more to do with the Lewis and Clark bicentennial and the popular book about their journey, “Undaunted Courage,” than the monument designation. “There was before the book and after the book,” he said.
Despite Secretary Zinke’s likely recommendation for maintaining the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, conservation groups in Montana haven’t given up advocating for its protection.
Montana Sierra Club spokesperson Bonnie Rice said the Upper Missouri River Breaks is a special part of America’s heritage, and contains many biological, ecological, cultural and historical features, such as segments of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and the Nez Perce National Historical Trail.
Rice said it’s important to protect this public asset.
“Sixteen presidents from both parties have used the Antiquities Act to protect stunning lands and oceans, including President Clinton in 2001 to protect the outstanding features of the Upper Missouri River Breaks,” Rice said. “A sweeping review puts many of these sites at risk. Donald Trump’s attempt to revoke or change the fabric of national monuments is an assault on our nation’s historical, cultural and natural heritage.
“President Trump’s administration would be hard-pressed to shrink, eliminate or alter national monuments without undermining the very cultural and natural resources they protect. The action is part of a larger effort by the Trump administration to drill, dismantle and degrade our public lands and waters.”
Courthouse News has been providing in-depth features on some of the national monuments targeted for closure or reduction by the Trump administration, including the Hanford Reach National Monument in Washington, the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in California and Oregon, and the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Hawaii. Click here for more CNS coverage on national monuments.