The recent brouhaha over national monuments is certainly creating a lot of attention and a lot more confusion. So much so, that national BLM director, Bob Abbey, recently accepted an invitation to come to Malta next month to help explain the situation.
The flare-up centers on a brainstorming memo made public by the Department of Interior two weeks ago which, among other things, discussed possible new national monuments locations. On the list was one area in the northeastern prairie lands of Montana. Although some have been using the memo to fan the flames of fear, I think most Montanans can see above the spin.
To help, I've noticed a few myths popping up in the papers that need to be busted.
Myth 1: Imminent land grab:
The fact that the BLM went through a conservation assessment of its lands does not translate to likely action. Instead those who stand to benefit politically have ginned up a false and scary scenario where farmers, ranchers and others will be kicked off the prairie. To quote the Shakespeare play, this is "Much Ado about Nothing."
Myth 2: Monuments bypass the public:
In the memo itself and in numerous press stories, the BLM has clearly stated that any monument designation would come only after extensive public vetting. We should remember that this is the same administration that has embarked on an unprecedented listening tour this summer - the "America's Great Outdoors" Initiative - to engage Americans about conservation for the next century.
Finally, it is worth remembering that the 2001 designation of Montana's Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument followed an extensive public involvement process, from initial recommendations from Montanans, to a public hearing with the Secretary of Interior in Great Falls, to meetings with the delegation and even formation of a local group focused specifically on this landscape and its designation.
Myth 3: Private property and livelihoods at risk:
Monuments are about public land only and do not involve seizing any private land. This has never happened and is not going to happen. Again, look at our Missouri Breaks Monument. While it includes 120,000 acres of private lands within its boundary, the BLM has not once forced any sale of inholdings, closed any access roads, or even significantly altered livestock grazing levels for local ranchers.
Myth 4: Monuments are undemocratic:
Presidents don't just wake up one day and decide to create a monument. Instead they are responding to a long history of vocal support for the area and a clear threat to the land. Congressional action is the preferred and most used path for land designation in this country, but, as we all know, "Congressional action" can seem almost glacial paced.
Furthermore, if our elected representatives are going to push for bottom-up, collaborative approaches that go through the halls of Congress, then they need to reward those that embark on this approach. That translates to full support for legislative proposals- whether it is Sen. Tester's Forest Jobs and Recreation Act or the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act proposal which is still awaiting sponsorship by any member of our delegation.
Myth 5: Only Democrats create monuments.
Republicans have a long and proud history of using the Antiquities Act, whether it be the very first monument designation by Theodore Roosevelt (Devil's Tower) or the most recent and largest ever monument by George W Bush (Pacific Islands Marine Monument). Republican presidents Coolidge, Roosevelt, Taft and Harding all designated monuments in places as diverse as the Grand Canyon, Muir Woods, Colorado National Monument, and Craters of the Moon.
In all the hype, we should not lose sight of two facts: 1) some of these sensitive Montana grasslands identified by the BLM memo do represent the "best of the last" for native prairie and may deserve some higher level of protection someday; 2) As we figure out how best to achieve this in Montana, informed, inclusive public discussions beats out fear-mongering any day of the week. I have hope Montanans can rise above the fear-based spin and engage in such a dialogue.
Peter Aengst is the acting Northern Rockies regional director for The Wilderness Society. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.