The Missouri Breaks National Monument is part of the Teddy Roosevelt tradition

By Policy Director Jim DiPeso

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: The following op-ed was published in four Montana newspapers during January 2002, including the Great Falls Tribune, Billings Gazette, Havre Daily News, and Lewistown News-Argus.


In the spring of 1903, Theodore Roosevelt whistle-stopped across the West and praised the great landscapes he saw outside his train. Roosevelt urged his fellow citizens to protect their heritage and talked about national parks as symbols of American democracy.

In 1906, a Republican-led Congress passed and Republican Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act. Since then, 14 presidents, Republicans and Democrats, have used the law to establish more than 100 national monuments protecting special public lands that embody America’s greatness.

The Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument is one of the finest legacies of Roosevelt’s visionary leadership. The monument’s 377,000 acres feature spectacular cliffs, groves of stout cottonwoods, and the last free-flowing stretch of the Missouri River, appearing much as it did to Lewis and Clark when they passed through on their epic Voyage of Discovery.

A landscape that offers today’s Americans a tangible bond with America as-it-was during the lifetimes of our natoin’s founders is a rare treasure worthy of full protection. Yet the monument also defers to the needs of today’s Montanans. Grazing and existing gas production leases will remain intact. Hunting and fishing will continue as traditional uses.

The Missouri Breaks monument celebrates something grandly American, exactly the type of special place Roosevelt fought to protect for future generations. In the the past few years, though, national monuments have been attacked. A bill has been proposed to curb the president’s ability to protect such places. Politicians, sadly, mostly Republicans, have excoriated recent national monuments as “land grabs,” a patent falsehood since monument land has been public land for generations. In fact, the Missouri Breaks has been federal land since 1803 as a result of Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase.

In their anti-monument zeal, politicians such as Congressman Denny Rehberg have raised another red herring — that monuments somehow infringe on private property rights. Don’t be fooled by such misleading nonsense. The Missouri Breaks monument designation does not apply to state or private lands. Private landowners retain full access to their land. They can use and dispose of their property as they please without any federal interference whatsoever.

Ordinary Montanans haven’t been taken in by spurious anti-monument scheming. The hundreds of letters sent to a local resource advisory council and to the monument review task force appointed by Gov. Martz show that many Montanans strongly support the Missouri Breaks monument.

So what’s going on here? How has it come to pass that a powerful conservation tool used by great Republican presidents causes many current Republican leaders heartburn?

It may come as a surprise to today’s Americans, raised on a political diet of negative advertising and sound bites, that the environment used to be an issue on which both Republican and Democratic officials were leaders. The Republican Party actually has conservation roots older than those in the Democratic Party.

While Theodore Roosevelt was the most famous Republican conservationist, he was not the only one. Republican presidents established huge national monuments. Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover protected millions of acres, including such treasured places as the Grand Canyon, White Sands, Arches, Glacier Bay, and Death Valley. Shortly before leaving office, Dwight D. Eisenhower established a wildlife sanctuary in what is now known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Wilderness and wild river protection laws were enacted in the 1960s thanks to John Saylor, a conservative Republican Pennsylvania congressman. In 1970, Richard Nixon sent Congress a 37-point environmental platform that became the framework of today’s national environmental laws.

In recent years, the environment has become a partisan political football.

Loud ideologues trumpet the false notion that nature is a left-wing conspiracy. They have grafted an unhealthy strain of anti-environmentalism onto the Republican platform in a shameful effort to obliterate the party’s conservation history.

Nothing is more conservative than conservation.

Prudence, patriotism, responsibility and leaving an inheritance for our descendants are conservative virtues that support strong protection for the nation’s air, water, and special places such as the Missouri Breaks.

America has been ill served by polarization that poisons environmental debates. Politicians who sow fear and discord about conservation have let their constituents down.

It’s time for all our leaders to remember what Theodore Roosevelt realized a century ago — America’s strength and character depend on a healthy, protected environment.

As the Rough Rider said in a famous speech: “Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of ensuring the safety and continuance of the nation.”