One year ago, Montanans saved the Missouri River Breaks National Monument from an unnecessary attempt to scrub it from history.
One of the culprits behind this short-sighted attack on Montana’s public lands was a group called the United Property Owners of Montana. That group, spearheaded by former chairman of the Montana Republican Party and paid lobbyist Chuck Denowh, made an unfortunate error going after a beloved Montana treasure. Fortunately, 24,000 Montanans from all sides of the political spectrum held our ground and we saved the Missouri Breaks.
Today, Denowh’s group is again lurking in Missouri River Country only this time they aren’t going after public lands. This time, they are targeting a private landowner’s right to manage their own land. As with the previous miscalculation to take away our Missouri River Breaks Monument, this new attack on property rights sits squarely on the wrong side of history.
The landowner in question is American Prairie Reserve. This conservation organization is using property rights in a pioneering way to stitch together a vast wildlife reserve in close proximity to the Missouri River Breaks National Monument and the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.
American Prairie Reserve operates through a voluntary conservation strategy that is rooted in the sanctity of private property rights and a free market approach. They only acquire land through a willing seller and willing buyer arrangement. They carefully negotiate prices with consenting landowners to ensure they are not paying above fair-market value. When prices are too high, they walk away from the deal, just like you and I would do. They also pay property taxes, just like every other law-abiding landowner.
What they are doing is of enormous benefit for Montanans and all Americans. Already American Prairie Reserve is providing more habitat for Montana’s native species including elk, deer and bison. They are working to increase public access and recreation opportunities for visitors, including hikers and hunters by building new trails, campgrounds, and by opening up previously inaccessible public lands. They are helping to diversify, not replace, the agricultural economy, through new tourism dollars. And they are doing this in cooperation with local ranchers through their Wild Sky program.
Unfortunately, not everyone agrees with this vision.
Just as they have tried with an unsuccessful attack on the Missouri River Breaks, Denowh’s property rights group is resorting to fear tactics, gimmicks, and outright lies to try to whip up a frenzy of opposition. In reality, this bizarre campaign of falsehoods must be called out for what it is. They are asking other property owners to join them in an open attack on property rights. This makes no sense considering the organization’s website says its members believe “the deterioration of one person’s property rights is really the erosion of everyone’s property rights.”
The United Property Owners is hosting a property rights conference today in Billings, and we sincerely hope they will use this time to reflect on this certain level of hypocrisy. They may not like what American Prairie Reserve is doing with their property rights, but they need to recognize that it is important to protect those basic rights, regardless of how they are being used.
One year ago, Montanans saved the Missouri River Breaks National Monument from an unnecessary attack against it. We are confident American Prairie Reserve will be equally enduring. The nonprofit’s pro-property rights approach of working alongside landowners and ranchers to enhance public access, restore native species populations, and bolster Montana’s outdoor recreation economy will leave a lasting and beneficial legacy for our state.
Larry Epstein is a historian and former Glacier County attorney. Randy Gray is a former mayor of Great Falls. Both have served on the BLM Resource Advisory Council for Central Montana.