By Hayley Young
To watch a Montana sunrise, to look out at the endless skies and see nothing for as far as the eye can see, it’s really no wonder that Montanans want to keep the state just the way it is. Montana was built by hardworking people—farmers and ranchers who get up day in, day out, no matter the weather, to work the soil and care for their livestock.
These same people face endless hurdles. Agriculture isn’t for the faint of heart. Drought, grasshoppers, and fluctuating market prices have long contributed
to the hardships that rural Montanans face. But Mother Nature and market prices are not the only worries they face
these days. New stressors include the American Prairie Reserve, buying up lands adjacent to the Missouri River in central Montana; The Big Sky Country National Heritage Area in Cascade and Chouteau counties; and the 30×30 initiative, a worldwide initiative for governments to designate 30 percent of Earth’s land and ocean as protected areas by 2030.
American Prairie Reserve
The goal of the APR, in effect, is to create an American Serengeti, piecing together 3.2 million acres, including public lands that ranchers have held permits on for livestock grazing. The APR region is located throughout the Missouri Breaks and adjacent plains, largely unchanged as it has been for hundreds of years. Life on the range is primarily driven by agriculture, with farmers and ranchers caring for the lands in a way that will continue to be workable for generations to come.
But somehow the American Prairie Reserve has sold this Serengeti idea to America’s uber rich. They continue to give millions of dollars to the APR to purchase more acres—working acres for area farmers and ranchers, lands that are primarily used for livestock grazing.
There are currently over 3,800 BLM grazing leases in Montana, making these lands a vital part of the cattle industry.
APR’s most recent acquisition of the 73 Ranch (located in the heart of the Missouri Breaks near the Musselshell River in Petroleum and Garfield counties) not only takes ag lands out of production, but affects wildlife management as well. This 32,000-acre tract of land borders the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge. Per the APR website, they will open access to all these lands by use of Type 2 Block Management, but they will only allow twelve hunters per day, with rest days on Tuesday and Wednesday, while prohibiting the killing of predatory animals on their BMA. It will be more land, with more limitations, for a very limited number of people.
For these reasons (and more), the APR is opposed by a number of longstanding and respected organizations in the state, including the Montana Stockgrowers Association and the Montana Public Lands Council.
Big Sky National Heritage Area
Private landowners are concerned that the creation of Big Sky National Heritage Area could mean big trouble. Property rights advocates fear the effects of provisions in some management plans. Concerns conclude that these provisions encourage local governments to implement land use policies that are consistent with the heritage areas’ plans, which may allow the heritage areas to indirectly influence zoning and land use planning in ways that could restrict owners’ use of their property.
Details from BSCNHA, INC paints a lovely picture of community partnership in creation of the NHA, but up until this point, has offered little to no transparency. As a result, a groundswell of opposition to the currently proposed National Heritage Area began in July of 2020, by private property owners throughout Cascade and Chouteau counties. Additional opposition has also come from Montana Farm Bureau and the Montana Grain Growers Association.
May 14, 2021 Governor Gianforte’s signed House Bill 554 into law. It states that any designation by the US National Park Service, of a National Heritage Area that extends beyond federal land, requires the approval of the Montana legislature, prior to a Congressional Act.
Right now, everyone is waiting on the final feasibility study. The initial feasibility study has been drafted and a public comment period was held. But the final draft has yet to be submitted. There has been no indication from the group as to when that will be. In the meanwhile, the pursuit for an NHA designation by the BSCNHA continues.
In 2021, days after taking office, President Biden signed Executive Order 14008, which includes the 30×30 initiative. According to the Biden Administration, the initiative’s goal is to help combat the climate crisis by conserving 30% of American lands and waters by 2030. Reaching this goal would require setting aside another 440 million American Acres, an area roughly five times the size of Montana.
In response, congressman Steve Daines co-authored an alternative plan called the “Western Conservation Principles.” Rather than add more “conservation”
lands, the proposal requests that current conservation and public lands be managed more effectively by focusing on forest health, invasive species,
wild horses, water infrastructure, superfund sites, public landlocked land management, improving digital maps, and working to enhance public access. The plan has signatures from 39 congressmen and has gained support from groups such as the Public Lands Council, Western Energy Alliance, American Sheep Industry, and the American Forest Research Council (just to name a few).
The 30×30 initiative’s vague definition of “conservation” leaves private landowners wary of restrictions that could be put on private and state
lands. Daines’ approach would offer management for lands that are already conserved or under public use. It would allow the stewards of the land (e.g., farmers and ranchers) to work directly with state and public officials to manage their lands without the oversight of the federal government and restrictions that may be added.
The 30×30 initiative, the APR, and the BSCNHA, INC are all guided in the name of preservation and conservation, but it’s a game of control. With the creation of each one, comes another round of restrictions—rights taken away from private property owners. It affects the way of life that rural Montanans have grown to love and cherish and makes it that much more difficult to continue the work that keeps the world fed.