GREAT FALLS, Mont. — When Lewis and Clark navigated flimsy boats beneath the towering sandstone cliffs of what is now Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, their journal entries described eroded bluffs, abundant wildlife and the Great Falls, which Meriwether Lewis reckoned were "truly magnificent and sublimely grand."
Although the Missouri Breaks looks much as it did when the Corps of Discovery came through in 1805, this primitive landscape now contains something the explorers could not have foreseen 200 years ago -- airstrips gouged out of sagebrush plateaus.
After decades of ignoring unauthorized takeoffs and landings on the monument's 10 airstrips, the federal Bureau of Land Management is finalizing plans to close four of the airstrips and allow recreational pilots to land small planes on at least six other remote sites in the Breaks' uplands.
The proposal has created a tempest at one of the BLM's most isolated and least-visited outposts. On one side, the Montana Pilots' Assn. hails the plan as a victory for recreational pilots and others who advocate increased access to public lands. Arrayed on the other side is a loose coalition of conservationists, hunters and anglers who say the planes will harass wildlife and could destroy the experience of solitude offered by the rugged landscape.
Some of the landing areas are cut into land managed as wilderness; others are in or near sites the BLM labels as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern. All of the landing strips are located in areas used by local ranchers for livestock grazing.
If, as expected, the BLM adopts its proposed 20-year plan for operating the Missouri Breaks, it will be the first time the agency has officially sanctioned recreational use of airstrips in wilderness areas.
Critics of the plan, including the Montana Wildlife Federation, which represents hunters and anglers, would like to see use of the airstrips banned. They say the action will almost certainly increase traffic to the airstrips and pose a threat to wildlife, including deer, elk, antelope and bighorn sheep. Although big-game animals are all legally hunted in the monument, the Montana group says allowing planes to drop well-to-do hunters deep into difficult terrain would put ground-based hunters at a disadvantage.
They also argue that well-maintained airstrips could become staging areas for poachers and note the significant commercial value of bighorn sheep. Montana's annual auction for the single out-of-state bighorn hunting permit it issues each year has fetched as much as $310,000.
Critics say the campaign by pilots to access land deep within the Breaks is motivated not so much by a clamor to use the landing strips there, but rather to establish a precedent.
"I don't think these pilots want to fly in and out of the Breaks," said Will Patric of the Wilderness Society in Bozeman, Mont. "This is a pressure campaign by the Montana Pilots' Assn. to open up more federal public lands to recreational flying activities."
Talking points on the pilots association's website indicate as much: "Getting six airstrips written in the management plan of a new National Monument will be a precedent-setting event."
Pilots readily acknowledge that they are interested in greater access to BLM and Forest Service lands in the region, and they argue that the airstrips, among other things, serve recreationists who are not physically able to hike or even ride in a vehicle for miles to get to backcountry.
Members of the Montana Pilots' Assn. said their activism was intended to forestall more closures and to maintain access to public lands.
"It seems that motorized recreation is the fall guy anymore," said J.C. Kantorowicz, a pilot from Great Falls. "They want to close it all up. What are all of us who enjoy motorized recreation supposed to do? There's no reason to close them because someone in Los Angeles and New York City has an idea that this country out here ought to be completely empty."
Flying small planes into backcountry is common in the West. Increasingly, ranchers and other residents in rural areas use planes to run errands to distant towns, replacing long rides in pickup trucks along unreliable roads. In fact, a number of ranchers around the Breaks have their own small planes and rudimentary airstrips on their ranches.
Still, many ranchers here oppose the proposed BLM plan.
Bill and Ronnie Robinson own the Anchor Ranch and run 500 head of cattle in the monument. Bill Robinson keeps a plane and hangar on his private land, but neither he nor his wife is happy about the idea of sanctioned landing strips on monument land.
"I don't want to see the airstrip in the Breaks," Ronnie Robinson said, sitting at her kitchen table on a hot day recently. "I think it should be protected. I believe the BLM has dropped the ball."