Now that they know: National Heritage Area proposal has many Montana landowners concerned

Tamara Choat
for Tri-State Livestock News
The scenic Missouri River rolls southeast of Big Sandy, Mont., along the original homestead of Lester Sluggett, grandfather of rancher Lisa Sluggett Darlington, who is working to oppose the NHA designation. Photo by Lisa Sluggett Darlington

It can be hard enough to fight the battles for private property rights that we know about.

It’s more difficult when our lands are quietly under siege and no one even heard the attack.

Since 2015 a self-organized group has been working to federally designate all of Cascade and part of Choteau counties in Montana as a National Heritage Area, a Congressionally-approved, informal partnership with the National Forest Service. Deemed the Big Sky Country National Heritage Area, the group comprised of a self-appointed board has completed a feasibility study and closed on a public comment period on the NHA.

The federal designation would affect thousands of acres of privately owned land within the boundary of the designation. According to opponents, less than 1.7 percent of private property owners in the affected area were aware of the proposal or had been contacted about the designation, nor have they given consent or support.

The socially-distanced crowd attending the forum of Montanans Opposing the Big Sky Country National Heritage Area in Great Falls on Oct. 15 listened to experts on private land issues and asked questions about the proposed designation in Cascade and Choteau counties of Montana. Photo courtesy Montanans Opposing the Big Sky Country National Heritage Area

National Heritage Areas were created in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan as a “new kind of national park.” They must be approved by Congress, and are designated areas where natural, cultural, and historic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape. Although the program states they do not have oversight from the National Park Service, the federal funds to support NHAs are channeled through the Park Service, and the program states that NHAs “further the mission of the National Park Service” and also receive technical assistance from the Park Service.

There are currently 55 NHAs in the United States. Among the Midwest and Mountain states, there are currently no NHAs in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota, or Nebraska. Colorado has three areas, North Dakota has one, Kansas has one, Nevada has one, and Utah has one. The entire state of Tennessee is designated an NHA.

Jim Larson is rancher, landowner and county commissioner in Cascade County, Mont., where Great Falls is the county seat. He is strongly opposed to the formation of an NHA, specifically one that encompasses an entire county plus some. Larson first became aware of the group working to form the Big Sky Country National Heritage Area when he went to an organizational meeting several years ago.

“I didn’t know a thing about National Heritage Areas, but I was watching this discussion, and thinking ‘I’m not quite believing what I’m hearing here,’” he says. The promotional verbiage for NHAs includes economic development, grassroots adjudication, and no influence on private property rights.

He says the biggest concern he had was almost the entire group of supporters were from urban Great Falls – there were no landowners, no people whose private property would be designated in the area, present.

“I went to the next meeting, and I got up and walked out in the middle of it,” Larson says. He says although there would not be an immediate and direct threat of the feds taking his land, the movement is a gradual creep, and the initial impacts could be land use authority.

“If this designation doesn’t have any impact on private land rights, like they say, and it is only to support historic sites and tourism, then why does it need to have a border? Why did we draw a line on a map?” he says.

Larson said three years ago he and the Cascade County commissioners met with the NHA group to discuss their concerns and attempt to find common ground. The group agreed to work toward designating just the Missouri River corridor through the county. “It sat that way for a couple of years,” Larson says. “They were holding private meetings but not doing anything out in the public.”

Then Larson found out that the Sun River area had been added to the boundary, then the Belt Creek drainage – all without any public discussion. Shortly after this, the feasibility study was released, including all the current area. “That enlarged it quite a bit from just the river corridor,” he says.

As word got out, several resolved opponents started working to inform the public. One of those was Rae Grulkowski, a private landowner and businesswoman from Stockett, Mont.

“Once these designations are established, they just keep taking a little bit more and little bit more,” says Grulkowski. “They’re called buffer zones – but they won’t stop with just this one. They will keep working to incorporate more and land. It’s critical that we work to stop it from getting a designation.”

With private property right infringement being the umbrella issue, key concerns of opponents also include transparency, accountability, and tax payer expenditures.

“This board is self-appointed and self-annointed,” says Grulkowski. “They created the board and took the steps toward designation. We don’t have a way to vote them in or out. Also, there is no requirement for any exchange of information.” Additionally, when NHA programs sunset, they have always been renewed and are a constant drain on the taxpayer, she says.

Grulkowski launched a letter-writing campaign to rural land owners in the boundary, started a Facebook group to organize opponents, and in late October hosted a forum at King’s Arena near Great Falls with a guest speaker from Colorado, who had worked to defeat a similar NHA designation in southeastern Colorado. They are requesting people and organizations to write letters of non-support to the National Park Service.

“We have slowed things down a lot,” she says. They have received statements of non-support from city councils, Hutterite colonies, and county Farm Bureau organizations, with more in the works.

The official feasibility study on the designation included a list of 21 key partners, eight current partners and 29 potential partners. The towns of Cascade and Belt, both listed as key partners, have released official statements of non-support. The town of Fort Benton, also listed as a key partner, voted to remain neutral, but not support. The Montana Grain Growers, listed as a potential partner without their knowledge, is working on a resolution opposing the designation, likely to be voted into policy at their annual meeting in November. The Montana Stockgrowers Association, Montana Farm Bureau Federation and Montana Woolgrowers Association are also expected to pass policy in opposition to the NHA designation at their upcoming annual meetings. R-CALF USA has submitted a letter of non-support, as have the Great Falls Association of Realtors. Stockman Bank, Montana’s largest ag banking system, was listed in the feasibility study as a potential partner and when contacted about it, responded with the following written statement: “Stockman Bank has not been involved in the Big Sky Country National Heritage Area’s planning process. Stockman Bank’s name has been used as a potential partner without our knowledge or permission.”

Larson says of the three Cascade County commissioners, he and Joe Briggs are opposed to the creation of the NHA. The third commissioner, Jane Weber, is chairman of the Big Sky Country NHA committee, creating a potential conflict of interest. Larson hopes to submit a letter of non-support to Congressional delegates and the National Park Service from the Cascade County commissioners, although it would not be unanimous.

The draft feasibility study was released for a 45-day public review ending Aug. 15. The group says they will incorporate comments into the final feasibility study and submit it to the National Park Service in fall 2020. Once an NHA feasibility study is submitted and approved by the NPS, it will be sent to Congress. Grulkowski says precedent shows once sent to Congress, the designations remain in the queue until they are eventually approved, no matter how many years it takes – they don’t come out. “It’s critical to not have the National Park Service approve this designation,” she says. However, part of what they are looking for in approving a designation is widespread support. It’s imperative for concerned citizens in any part of the state or country submit letters of opposition by mail or email to the National Park Service.

Key contacts at the National Park Service are employees Kathleen Durcan, acting coordinator for National Heritage Areas, at and Alexandra Hernandez, National Heritage Areas regional coordinator at Opponents are also encouraged to contact their elected official to voice their non-support of the formation of new NHAs, as well as join the Facebook group “Montanans Opposing Big Sky Country National Heritage Area.”

“It seems our communities have documented and shared our heritage and history very well,” says Grulkowski. “It would be amiss to believe a self-appointed committee, comprised mostly of city property owners, would do a better job of continuing to keep this heritage intact.”

Larson says he simply doesn’t like the looks of the project, and never has from the start. “If it’s just about promoting our area, well, the Missouri River already has a wild and scenic designation, we’re already on the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, we’re already in the Charles Russell area, where he lived and did business. I don’t know how much more advertising and titles we need without taking up someone’s land.”

Ultimately, many believe it’s a quiet, unassuming land grab in the assault on private property.

“Any time you draw a border around someone’s land and they have no say in if they want to participate or not – well, that’s just not the American way,” said Larson.