‘Land grab’ memo dismissed

The Great Falls Tribune

by Ledyard King

WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar downplayed an internal memo Tuesday suggesting the federal government take over millions of acres in Montana and other Western states, saying his agency is not pursuing any such steps and would seek public input before it did.

“There are no plans that we have to move forward,” Salazar told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee Tuesday, describing the memo as a result of an informal dialogue among agency employees.

“There have been no directions from the White House that we move forward on (this). And it obviously is a presidential exercise of authority,” he said.

Montana Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg and other Western lawmakers began voicing concerns last month when they saw portions of a leaked Interior Department document indicating the Obama administration is exploring whether to protect millions of acres, including deserts, grasslands and mountains, by designating them as national monuments or buying the land from private owners.

Included on the list was a suggestion that the White House designate Montana’s Northern Prairie as a national monument and pay about $24 million to purchase private land along the upper Missouri River to benefit the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

Rehberg said such a “land grab” would wrest land away from those who want to use it for ranching, recreation, timber harvest and energy development. He has introduced a bill that would require congressional approval of new “national monument” designations in Montana, similar to a provision already in place for Wyoming.

“Public input is certainly important, but it’s not enough if that input is ignored or comes after a policy has been written or implemented,” Rehberg said. “When it comes to executive action, we’ve already seen this administration shoot first and ask questions later, and now that the sights are on millions of acres in Montana, the responsible action is to reassert congressional oversight.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who asked Salazar to explain the memo at Tuesday’s hearing, said he too would oppose the takeover of that acreage because “the government has enough land.” But he’s satisfied that Salazar put the issue to rest Tuesday.

“I think it’s much more important to listen to what the secretary says rather than listening to what one of his employees says, because ultimately, as he put it, it’s going to come from him,” Tester said after the hearing.

In fact, at least one of the projects being proposed couldn’t even be done.

Federal rules enacted when the upper Missouri River area became a national monument bar the government from even approaching landowners to buy their tracts, said Dyrck Van Hyning, a member of the Friends of the Missouri Breaks Monument, a private nonprofit group.

Besides, Van Hyning said, private landowners do a good job of preserving the area. He wondered where the federal government — already saddled with record debt — would even find the money to buy more land.

“We do not have the money to be doing these things— and what good is it going to do, anyway?” he said.

The sites mentioned in the memo comprise about 13 million acres spread out among 11 states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washing¬ton and Wyoming.

The document says these sites, which include the Northwestern Sonora Desert in Arizona and the Berryessa Snow Mountains in California, should be protected because of their geological importance or because of their role as a natural habitat for numerous species of wildlife.

Under the Antiquities Act, the president has the power — without congressional approval — to designate certain lands as “national monuments,” thereby protecting them from a host of uses, including oil drilling and mining.

After Tuesday’s hearing, Salazar described the document as the result of an informal, internal dialogue.

“They were brainstorming sessions that basically said, ‘These are the areas that could be protected, and the way you protect them is through a variety of different means, and this is one option, but it doesn’t mean that’s the option that we select,’” he said.

“One of the things you’ll see a lot of from the department in the year ahead will be how we work with local communities (and) members of Congress on developing what’s essentially going to be the 2010 legislation with respect to our public lands,” he said.

The issue is explosive for Western lawmakers, who were enraged when President Bill Clinton created a string of large national monuments, starting in 1996 with the 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase Escalante monument in Utah.

“The more assurances we can get (that it won’t happen), that’s our best defense,” Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, said Tuesday. “I will take Secretary Salazar at face value, but I will continue to raise the issue.”