Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Interior fumbling landmark conservation act

by Daily Inter Lake
| November 29, 2020 12:00 AM

The Great American Outdoors Act was widely heralded as a major bipartisan success of 2020.

The landmark conservation bill requires mandatory and full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund to the tune of $900 million, and addresses long-standing maintenance backlogs on public lands.

Democrat U.S. Sen. Jon Tester had advocated for fully funding the LWCF for years, and his Republican colleague Sen. Steve Daines helped lead efforts to finally get such a bill to President Trump’s desk.

We cheered alongside myriad conservation groups when the Act was finally signed into law this past August. The bill represents a true joint effort from Montana’s two senators, and the outcome stands to greatly benefit Northwest Montana.

That’s why we’re so disappointed to see Interior officials fumble its initial action on the legislation.

First, the federal department that oversees our national parks missed a Nov. 2 deadline to nominate projects for funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and then submitted the list without detailed funding requests.

Tester called the Interior’s botched start a “blatant disregard for a law it championed is a slap in the face to the grassroots folks in Montana and across the West who spent decades fighting for full LWCF funding.”

Tester and Daines both sit on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which then proposed its own list of projects and funding levels in an Interior Department spending bill. 

However, less than two weeks later U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt issued an order that will hamstring federal land-acquisition projects under the LWCF. 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 — a move that has been rightly criticized as 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," said Whitney Tawney, deputy director of Billings-based Montana Conservation Voters.

Daines also lambasted the order, saying the Interior had undercut the work of the Appropriations Committee.

“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."

Much effort has gone into the passage of this historic legislation, and to see that work squandered from the jump should be of serious concern to all Montanans who value public lands.

Thankfully, Tester and Daines continue to watch over the progression of the act with a critical eye. It’s imperative they continue to put political allegiance aside and speak up for what’s right for Montana.