I enthusiastically support the decision of Gov. Brian Schweitzer and the Montana Land Board to purchase for the state of Montana the large acreage along the upper Milk River and in the Sweet Grass Hills. For too long the striking scenery and historical significance of the upper Milk River has been overlooked. Even Captain Meriwether Lewis made a significant error of his expedition when he failed to trace the Milk River to its source in the Rocky Mountains.
Lewis and his fellow explorer, William Clark, decided on an extended exploration of the Yellowstone River but failed in their attempt to further explore the Milk. Had they mapped the upper Milk River, parts of the northern boundary of the United States might have been 16 miles farther north. After all, Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase, which includes eastern Montana and regions farther to the east, included the entire drainage of the Missouri River. The Milk River is certainly a part of the Missouri River system, but its 100-mile loop into present-day Alberta was not explored and mapped until too late to influence establishment of the northern boundary of the U.S. — although that boundary was otherwise based on the extent of the Louisiana Purchase.
A more important aspect of the state purchase of this land in the upper Milk River Valley is the history and remarkable beauty of the region. It contains one of the largest preserved areas of petroglyph and pictograph sites in the country as well as the largest undisturbed area of traditional Native American encampments in the world, extending back as much as 9,000 years, including hundreds of tipi rings, Indian ceremonial and cooking sites.
In addition, its beauty is remarkable. As one visitor noted, it is "one of the most beautiful places I almost didn't visit." The sweeping cottonwood groves with chokecherries and buffalo berries in abundance are unique, as are the antelope, white-tail and muley populations — and the raccoons, skunks, marmots, bobcats, coyotes and rattlesnake dens, to say nothing of numerous remarkable wild flowers on extensive blue joint grass meadows. Largely missing are the immense herds of buffalo, wolves and grizzlies observed by Lewis and Clark, but which could possibly be partially restored if the region becomes a public park.
It's worth noting that Canada is well ahead of the U.S. in this respect. The Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park on the Canadian side of the Milk River is one of the largest provincial parks in Alberta. Under its Blackfeet name as the Aisinaipi National Historic Site, it has been nominated as a World Heritage Site with UNESCO. The word "aisinaipi" translates from Blackfeet language as "it is pictured" or "it is written."
The state purchase of the site will prevent it being broken into small fenced estates for idle "country-dwellers." Then, the groves, ponds, wildlife and grand grassy meadows would be destroyed and crisscrossed with roads and fences. Access by the general public would be denied for recreational purposes like hunting, fishing, berry picking, canoeing, sightseeing and picnicking.