Stop playing politics with Land and Water Conservation Fund

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  • (Photo courtesy Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation)

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    The Stillwater State Forest. (Chris Peterson photo)

  • (Photo courtesy Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation)

  • 1

    The Stillwater State Forest. (Chris Peterson photo)

A recent campaign led by a Montana political action group placed multiple op-eds and letters in Montana newspapers critical of Senator Steve Daines’ efforts to secure funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. These misguided, misinformed political attacks deserve a response.

Montanans deserve to know the facts. The Land and Water Conservation Fund was created by Congress in 1964 to conserve natural areas, water resources and cultural sites and to provide recreational opportunities for Americans. The program is funded by offshore oil and gas royalties, which collect around $900 million per year for LWCF. Yet, Congress typically appropriates less than half this amount to the program — diverting the remainder to other federal priorities. Over the past 10 years, LWCF received between $300-$450 million per year. The funds are divided between federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to acquire strategic land parcels to conserve wildlife habitat and provide public access to public lands; and to states and territories to provide for outdoor recreation opportunities, such as parks, hiking trails, urban fishing ponds and baseball fields. A portion of the funds are also directed to Gulf Coast states for coastal conservation, restoration and hurricane protection. Both the federal and stateside aspects of LWCF significantly augment local and state economies to the tune of $887 billion every year and support 7.6 million American jobs.

Montana is fortunate to have its entire congressional delegation support this critical program, which has contributed to 80 land conservation projects completed by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation over the years. These projects provided more than $108 million in funding to conserve and provide public recreational access to more than 150,000 acres of America’s most crucial elk habitat, which also benefits other wildlife.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana and Sen. Daines, R-Montana are members of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the all-important Interior and Environment Subcommittee — which approve and fund proposed LWCF projects. Senator Daines has used his influence as a member of the majority on these panels to fight for Montana projects and recruit a bipartisan coalition of senators from all over the country to push for increased LWCF appropriations. Comprehensive natural resource management legislation signed into law last year permanently reauthorized LWCF. This would never have happened without his dogged determination to make sure it stayed in the bill despite significant opposition from several senators and without securing a commitment from President Trump to sign it into law.

Both Sen. Tester and Sen. Daines are original cosponsors of S. 1081, the LWCF Permanent Funding Act, which would fully fund the program into the future and avoid the program’s annual appropriations fight. While the legislation has a bipartisan group of 47 cosponsors, the recent op-eds and letters blame only Sen. Daines for S. 1081 not yet becoming law. Any Montanan who took a civic or government class in middle or high school or watched “Schoolhouse Rock” understands it takes more than one senator’s support for a bill to become a law. It takes at least 51 votes in the Senate and 218 votes in the House and approval by the president. In short, it will take an aggressive, bipartisan effort by each of the bill’s cosponsors to pass this legislation and achieve full LWCF funding.

Recognizing that S. 1081 will take a lot of time to move through the legislative process and may never pass, Sen. Daines took advantage of his majority position on the Appropriations Committee to act quickly this year to make sure LWCF was well-funded for next year. While the Senate is yet to act on FY 2020 appropriations bills, Sen.Daines is working with Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Senate leadership to ensure LWCF is funded at the highest level possible.

Montanans should be celebrating permanent reauthorization of LWCF and supporting the cooperative efforts of the Montana delegation to increase funding in the short-term and work toward long-term full funding.

R. Kyle Weaver is president and CEO of Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation

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