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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Apr 26 2017

Monumental Threat

Trump signed an executive order today that imperils national monuments and could cripple our public lands heritage

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It was an uncharacteristically warm day in November the first time I drove into Fort Benton to buy a beat-up, 16-foot canoe. Fort Benton is quiet that time of year, almost empty, as if in the beginning stages of hibernation. Later that day I would shove off from town’s boat ramp headed 150 miles down the Missouri River and through one of Montana’s most storied places.

Over the next seven days, a Chinook wind battered us, and the warm weather abandoned us. By day we followed bighorn sheep on the canyon walls high above. By night we listened to the howl of coyotes echoing from those same walls under ink-black skies. By the end of our trip, my canoe was breaking through skim ice in the eddies. The experience has stayed fresh in my memory ever since. 

Today, President Trump signed an executive order that puts this storied stretch of the Missouri, a place that holds a crucial place in Montana’s history, at serious risk.

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In the months before I arrived in Fort Benton in 2001, Montanans had completed an 18-month process that included comment periods and statewide public meetings held by the Secretary of the Interior, the governor, and the Bureau of Land Management. As a result of those comments and meetings, President Clinton designated the area in 2001 as the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. Polls and comments collected from the public showed the new monument held the support of a majority of Montanans.

Since that designation, there have been many attempts to weaken the Antiquities Act, the legislation that gives U.S. presidents authority to create national monuments. Montana Senator Steve Daines has been a regular source of many of these attempts, having sponsored legislation that would gut the Antiquities Act by taking designation authority away from the president.

Today’s executive order by President Trump is the latest, and perhaps most alarming, threat, one that could end up crippling or even destroying the Antiquities Act, an essential component of America’s public lands heritage.

According to a 2017 Colorado College Poll, 77% Montanans support our designated national monuments. Nevertheless, President Trump ordered Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to review national monuments larger than 100,000 acres that were designated after 1996. Montana’s Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument is subject to this review.
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This monument is a place that physically connects us to our history and allows us to participate in the outdoor heritage that so defines us as Montanans.

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In their remarks at the signing, President Trump and Secretary Zinke chose to ignore the overwhelming popularity of our nation’s monuments. And while this review does not eliminate any protections, the President and secretary of the Interior clearly signaled ending the use of the Antiquities Act – a law championed in Congress by an Iowa Republican, John F. Lacey, and a legacy-defining tool used by President Theodore Roosevelt 18 times.

During his Senate confirmation hearing and numerous times since then, Secretary Zinke has regularly shared his admiration for Roosevelt, whose conservation legacy is unmatched. Today’s actions by the Trump administration, and the remarks at the press conference, show that Sec. Zinke is hell-bent on bringing that legacy to its knees.

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After that first trip in November, much has changed. There’s more gray in my beard, my bones ache earlier during a long float or hike, but, most importantly, my wife and I now have two little travelers that join us on our trips down the Missouri. Both of my daughters made their first multi-day floats through the monument before they could crawl. My older daughter said her first word under the shade of an ancient cottonwood there, and we’ve lazed away days on the back of the slow-moving river.

Once you truly get to know a place, it becomes part of you. And it feels like my history runs deep in the Breaks and has mingled with the stories of others who have passed through here. You only need to scan the petroglyphs or walk among the tipi rings to realize people have been passing through this landscape for thousands of years, including Lewis and Clark.

Every year, thousands of people float the river for the opportunity to lay their heads in the same spots where these two explorers did the same back in 1805. Many more come to peer into aging homesteads perched above the river and imagine the hardship and grit that came with making a living in a place that so often is inhospitable.

This monument is indeed a place that physically connects us to our history and allows us to participate in the outdoor heritage that so defines us as Montanans.

A friend who grew up near Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument reminded me that our national monuments tell the story of who we are and where we come from. Let’s make sure that our story lives on and we protect the places that tell it.

Join us in asking Secretary Zinke to do all that he can to protect our heritage, which means protecting our national monuments and the Antiquities Act. If you use Twitter, tweet at him using his handle, @SecretaryZinke. If you use Facebook, post a comment on his page. You can also call his office at (202) 208-7351 or email him at at exsec@ios.doi.gov.

- John Todd, MWA conservation director