WHITEFISH — Cutting off public campaigns by proponents and opponents, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Tuesday he plans to recommend the Upper Missouri Breaks retain its status as a national monument, effectively taking it off the list of monuments nationwide that could lose their status.
“My likely recommendation will be to leave the Missouri Breaks as is,'' Zinke said. "I think it’s settled to a degree that I would rather not open up a wound that has been healed.''
Zinke made his remarks at a press conference following his appearance at the Western Governors’ Association meeting.
The announcement shocked people on both sides of the issue.
Nicolle Fugere, owner of Missouri River Outfitters in Fort Benton, was featured in one of four billboards erected in Flathead County, by a group called Hold Our Ground, which opposes the review.
"I honestly did not think it would go in this direction, so it was a bit of a shock," she said.
Fugere has worked for the outfitting business in north central Montana for nine years, floating down the river that bisects the monument. This is her first year as the owner. The reason she agreed to put her face to the campaign was that she sees the monument as an economic and social benefit for the rural community of about 1,400 people.
A recent Headwaters Economics report was cited by Hold Our Ground, which found that communities around the monument saw a "23 percent increase of real per capita income from 2001 to 2015."
Chuck Denowh, who represents the United Property Owners of Montana in the Legislature, said the monument has had a "terrible impact" on the area's economy, not a benefit.
"Especially for those many Montanans with property inside those boundaries," Denowh said. "That's 81,000 acres of private land."
Denowh called Zinke's announcement "deeply disappointing," but he and Fugere aren't completely sure that the review has been dropped given Zinke's phrasing in the announcement that he would "likely" recommend leaving the monument as it is now.
"Our group would certainly encourage him to take that review up," Denowh said.
United Property Owners of Montana was one of the groups that had been soliciting its members to draft letters to Zinke stating their opposition to the monument, with a list of recommended challenges to its establishment in the final hours of the Clinton administration in 2001.
"Most Montanans want more control by Montanans and local communities," Denowh said.
Fugere said she will have a hard time believing Zinke won't review the monument until it's finalized, but she was encouraged that he said the issue had been resolved.
"That's a start," she said. "Let's hope it's a finish."
Groups like Montana Audubon were encouraging members to voice their support for the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in an emailed "action alert." Both sides were attempting to rally their backers to comment since the July 10 deadline was looming.
Zinke was tasked earlier this year by the Trump administration to review national monuments over 100,000 acres designated after 1996. Following his recommendation to reduce the size of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah earlier this month, there has been a concern the same could happen for the Upper Missouri.
Zinke said after talks with local, state and federal officials, he had decided there was no need to review the 377,000-acre Montana monument.
He said the Missouri Breaks is operating under a management plan developed by Montanans that protects the unique natural area, ensures public access and maintains traditional uses, including grazing.
Zinke said he believed the issue was settled and it caused disruption to reopen it.
"I am more than thrilled and excited," Fugere said. "Above and beyond."