By Ron Poertner – originally published Aug 16, 2018
A sign along a county road south of Malta, points the way to an American Prairie Reserve camp. Ranchers who oppose the reserve for its potential to alter the local agriculture community erected the sign seen to the right in this 2016 photo. Mathew Brown, Associated Press
Spin doctors for the American Prairie Reserve, Larry Epstein and Randy Gray, wrote a one-sided opinion piece in the Aug. 1 Billings Gazette attacking the United Property Owners of Montana policy director, Chuck Denowh, and labeling UPOM as the "culprits" who opposed the Missouri Breaks Monument and assailants of APR’s property rights.
The “culprits” these gentlemen refer to just happen to be the farmers and ranchers who rely on the land for a living and produce hundreds of millions of dollars in income for the region. Because the truth is seldom an impediment for what preservationists will say or do to advance their cause, it is important that the rest of the story be told.
The Breaks Monument was a highly contested designation that few in central Montana favored. Urban dwellers living outside the area claimed the monument would become a tourism gold mine that would bring in millions of dollars to cities like Great Falls and surrounding communities.
The truth is, except for a few river outfitters, the monument remains an economic bust. The predicted flood of people into the monument area never materialized.
The monument management plan developed by the BLM to protect this “beloved Montana treasure,” as the Epstein-Gray duo call it, resulted in two-thirds of the access roads being closed or seasonally restricted, RV/trailer camping in the uplands was restricted to 50 feet from the remaining access roads and more restrictions were placed on power boating on the lower reach of the Wild and Scenic Missouri River.
APR’s property rights are not being attacked by anyone. The rub in this matter is that APR is gobbling up farms and ranches to stitch together 500,000 acres of deeded property with 3 million acres of public land to create a wildlife reserve larger than Yellowstone Park. The Bureau of Land Management facilitates that effort by its stated intention to approve APR’s grazing leases for bison and in so doing essentially grants operational control of huge tracts of public land to APR.
APR pretends to be raising bison as domestic livestock yet publicly acknowledges that their long term goal is to develop at least one herd of 10,000 bison that one day can roam semi-freely across the prairie. The carrot being used to peddle this inane concept is that the ecotourism industry APR hopes to create will help diversify the agriculture economy and shore up local businesses. Starting to sound like a monument replay, doesn’t it?
The real story being overlooked is contained in APR’s mission statement: “Create in the northern plains of Montana the largest nature reserve in the continental United States, a refuge for people and wildlife preserved forever as part of America’s heritage. Restoration of a large population of bison on APR is central to this mission.”
The concern within the agriculture community is that APR’s agenda will displace many rural families and that crop lands will be converted to native prairie grasses, sagebrush, weeds and buffalo wallows. Ultimately, farm dwellings will be bladed into the ground and reservoirs ripped open. The list of downsides that APR will bestow on communities will be significant and APR and its spin doctors apparently don’t understand the hostile environment they are creating.
The final chapter in this mess remains to be written but the first chapter will be diagnostic because it will contain BLM’s decision that is pending on APR’s 18 bison grazing requests – a decision that will define the future for APR and central Montana.