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Interior Department order hinders public land purchases

by CHAD SOKOL
Daily Inter Lake | November 18, 2020 12:00 AM

Conservation advocates say an order from the U.S. Department of the Interior will hamstring federal land-acquisition projects under the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which received full and permanent funding when the Great American Outdoors Act was signed into law this summer.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt issued the order on Friday, less than two weeks after the department missed a statutory deadline to nominate projects for LWCF funding. Among other changes, the order requires private landowners to obtain "a written expression of support" from their state's governor and their county government before they can sell land to the Interior Department.

"Giving the state and local governments the power to reject potential projects from willing landowners is an attack on private property rights. If landowners want to sell to increase access to our public lands, they should have every right to do so," Whitney Tawney, deputy director of Billings-based Montana Conservation Voters, said in an email.

"Further, the secretarial order also undercuts the Bureau of Land Management by making it more difficult to increase access to our National Conservation Lands," Tawney said. "All of this attacks the implementation of the Great American Outdoors Act that so many want to claim credit for and goes against the intent of the historic legislative win so many supported."

Montana's Democratic Sen. Jon Tester pushed for more than a decade to fully fund the LWCF, and Republican Sen. Steve Daines recently campaigned on his role in passing the Great American Outdoors Act.

Both senators sponsored the landmark conservation bill, which permanently funds the LWCF at $900 million per year with royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling. The law also provides up to $9.5 billion over the next five years for overdue maintenance of national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and other public lands.

In a letter to Bernhardt, Tester said the Interior Department order "undercuts what a landowner can do with their own private property and creates unnecessary, additional levels of bureaucracy that will hamstring future land acquisition through the Land and Water Conservation Fund."

In a news release, the Interior Department said the order "increases flexibility for how states and local communities spend and match LWCF grants" and "honors Interior’s commitment to be a good neighbor by giving states and communities a voice in federal land acquisition."

The Interior Department includes the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service, all of which manage federal lands. The BLM oversees more than 245 million acres, but Bernhardt's order puts the agency last on the priority list for LWCF projects.

The order also prohibits the Interior Department from acquiring land outside existing boundaries, which Tester said "severely constrains Interior's flexibility to use LWCF to resolve complicated land access issues on its borders, where state, federal and private lands are often intermingled."

In a statement, Daines noted that Congress has oversight over the Interior Department, and that the Senate Appropriations Committee has proposed an LWCF project list that "maintains Montana priorities" and "better meets the spirit and intent of the Great American Outdoors Act."

“Unfortunately, in developing the new LWCF framework, [the Interior Department] did not rely on the transparency, collaboration and partnerships that have made this critical conservation program so successful for decades," Daines said. "This must be corrected going forward to ensure Montana voices are heard."

THE SENATE Appropriations Committee proposed its own list of LWCF projects after the Interior Department missed a Nov. 2 deadline set forth in the Great American Outdoors Act. The department submitted its list a week late and without detailed funding requests, angering many Democratic lawmakers.

The Appropriations Committee bill currently would provide $39.3 million for conservation projects in Montana, including in the Miller Lake valley, the Kootenai Forestlands, Bad Rock Canyon, Lolo trails and national wildlife refuges. The bill also includes projects on the Lower Musselshell River and the Blackfoot River watershed, which the Interior Department removed from its priority list.

Tawney, with Montana Conservation Voters, noted that before Daines and other GOP lawmakers supported the Great American Outdoors Act, the Trump administration repeatedly had proposed budgets that would have gutted the LWCF. She also noted that William Perry Pendley, a lawyer who previously challenged Montana's stream-access law, has continued to lead the Bureau of Land Management despite a judge ruling his appointment invalid.

"This shows the true nature of the Trump administration’s anti-public lands agenda," Tawney said in a statement. "Up until an election year, the Trump administration consistently opposed funding for our public lands, and this latest action shows their priorities haven’t changed. Sen. Steve Daines told Montanans he supports full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, so we’ll be holding him accountable to actions, not just lip service."

President-elect Joe Biden's administration likely will be able to reverse Bernhardt's order and other actions taken by the Interior Department, but Tawney noted it can take time to fill key positions in such a large federal agency, and the order will be one of many priorities.

Reporter Chad Sokol can be reached at 758-4434 or csokol@dailyinterlake.com