Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Travel: Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument Interpretive Center, Fort Benton, MT

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In 1976, Congress designated 149 miles of the Missouri River in Central Montana as Wild and Scenic. The added exposure drew visitors from around the country and recognition as a national treasure soon followed. Not only among the best preserved examples of Central Montana Prairie Ecosystems the river corridor was a premier segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, as well as a significant segment of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail. Remote and still wild the corridor provides habitat to a wide variety of wildlife-some threatened and endangered.

In response to requests from Montanan's and others who had visited the area and were awed by its beauty and remoteness, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt toured the area in May 1999 with Senator Max Baucus, author/historian Stephen Ambrose, and author Dayton Duncan. Following Babbitt's trip, the Central Montana Resource Advisory Council (RAC) held meetings throughout all the towns in the area over a five-month period and developed recommendations pertaining to management that were sent to the Secretary in December 1999. More than 800 pieces of testimony were collected by the RAC and reviewed by the Secretary. Local and national support for National Monument designation was overwhelming. Babbitt's office consulted with the Governor and the Montana delegation throughout the process.

Babbitt returned in the spring of 2000 and held another meeting with the RAC and members of the public. In June 2000, Babbitt met with the Montana delegation in Washington, DC to discuss the status of the proposal, legislative options, and the importance of holding true to the recommendations of the Resource Advisory Council.

Opposition to the Monument came from individuals and organizations who had economic and personal interests in maintaining the status quo. These included local ranchers with grazing leases, oil and gas companies with leases or the desire to hold leases within the proposed Monument, and motorized vehicle users who believed that the Monument designation threatened their recreational activities. Some ranchers organized into a group called the Missouri River Stewards. They asserted that their livelihoods and historic use of the public’s land would be harmed by the Monument designation.

However, despite howls of angry protest, on December 22, 2000, Secretary Babbitt recommended to the President Clinton that the area be designated a national monument. It became official on January 17, 2001.

Unlike other national monumets which are managed by the National Park Service the UMBNM is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This was done to avoid stirring up more debate as other national monuments are managed consistent with the mission of the Park Service and some traditional uses would be eliminated. Secretary Babbitt had something different in mind for this “crown jewel” of BLM land, as well as others which he called “landscape monuments.” His vision was to give the BLM the primary role of managing and preserving these areas for future generations and thereby shift the culture of the BLM toward managing for preservation of these special landscapes rather than serving as an agent for the extraction industry as has been widely hinted in the past.

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Besides providing visitors information on the Monument itself there is much to learn about the flight of the Nez Perce some of the conflicts with the U.S. Army who pursued them. Here Gale is reading about the so-called Cow Island Incident. On September 21, 1877 13 Fort Benton troops, of Company F, 7th Army, and two volunteers loaded a canon onto a steamship. Aided by 38 volunteers on horseback they headed downriver to defend Fort Claggett and protect the supplies at the Cow Island steamboat landing from a band of Nez Perce reported to be heading that way.

Too late they found the supply wagons had already been looted and burned. Outnumbered the troops and volunteers turned tail and returned to Fort Benton.

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In addition there is also much to learn concerning the often hazardous steamboat journeys, what the early days in Fort Benton were like and many other interesting tidbits of what really was one of the more fascinating tales in Montana history. 

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