The federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that the Bureau of Land Management violated federal laws governing the protection of cultural and historic sites in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. The court found that the agency failed to identify the monument’s many historical and cultural resources before it designated hundreds of miles of roads. BLM must now conduct intensive inventories of those roads as a first step toward ensuring that the monument’s valuable archaeological and historic sites are not damaged. The 345,000-acre monument is located in northern Montana and was created in 2001 in part to protect those resources.
The lands in and around the national monument were first inhabited by numerous native tribes, including the Blackfeet, Assiniboin, Gros Ventre (Atsina), Crow, Plains Cree, and Plains Ojibwa. They contain archeological and historical sites, from teepee rings and remnants of historic trails to abandoned homesteads and lookout sites used by Meriwether Lewis. Despite the importance of these sites, the management plan had authorized a network of roads based on decades-old inventories of only 8 percent of the monument.
Today’s ruling comes in a lawsuit filed in 2009 by four conservation groups — Friends of the Missouri Breaks Monument, Oil & Gas Accountability Project, National Trust for Historic Preservation and The Wilderness Society, all represented by Earthjustice — and partly reverses a 2011 district court ruling. The Ninth Circuit deferred to the BLM on other claims relating to its designation of a road system in the monument. Similar litigation was brought by the Montana Wilderness Association and the decision applies to both lawsuits.
“The court affirmed that the monument planning undertaken by prior BLM officials lacked a ‘good faith’ effort to survey and protect the remarkable historical and archaeological sites in the monument,” said Earthjustice attorney Melanie Kay. “By BLM’s own admission, only 8 percent of the monument has ever been thoroughly inventoried for cultural and historic resources, and most of that work occurred decades ago. The future of the monument should not be based on old and incomplete information. We are relieved that the court has directed BLM to embrace a ‘know before you go’ approach to management.”
“We’re relieved this lawsuit is over so we can all move on for the good of the monument,” said Friends of the Missouri Breaks Vice-President Hugo Tureck, a public lands rancher in central Montana. “We can work with BLM and all interested parties in addressing the issues, and addressing the court’s findings, and move on.”
National monuments are a relatively new addition to BLM’s public lands management portfolio. The agency struggled with adapting its practices to the needs of these national treasures during its first planning efforts, leading to a number of legal challenges. Today’s ruling is one of the first dealing with BLM monument management and helps clarify the role of the National Historic Preservation Act in the monument planning process.
"The National Trust is extremely pleased that the court recognized the importance of using on-the-ground surveys to identify cultural resources, before authorizing uses that could harm those resources," explained Elizabeth Merritt, deputy general counsel of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "The court reminded BLM that the fundamental purpose of a land use plan for a national monument is to protect and preserve historic objects, which provides an important focus for BLM's stewardship responsibilities."
Despite the lawsuit, the conservationists have worked closely with BLM over the last four years to implement effective conservation measures within the monument. Today’s ruling clears the way forward for ensuring the long-term preservation of the monument’s objects. The conservationists anticipate that common-sense fixes can produce a plan that will have the needed integrity to match the success of on-the-ground conservation efforts and look forward to building on the strong relationship they have forged with the BLM.
“We applaud the court’s decision here, that this RMP is not just any land use plan. It is a land use plan adopted to implement a national monument designated for the very purpose of protecting and preserving historic objects,” said Bruce Baizel, Director of the Oil & Gas Accountability Project. “Where roads and airstrips may adversely impact those objects, the BLM must go beyond promises of future mitigation.”
The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument was established by President Clinton in 2001, in recognition of its “spectacular array of biological, geological, and historical objects of interest.” The Monument, one of the only remaining intact ecosystems on the northern Great Plains, spans 149 miles of the Wild and Scenic Missouri River and the adjacent prairies and badlands, and encompasses segments of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail. Private lands within the monument boundaries are not affected by this decision, as they are not part of the national monument.