FWP commission appeals for LWCF reauthorization

The Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks commission has thrown its support behind the reauthorization of the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.

On Thursday, commissioners unanimously approved a letter urging Montana’s congressional delegation to revive the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Congress allowed the LWCF to expire at the end of September after 50 years of funding federal and state recreation and conservation lands and facilities.

The letter also asks for permanent funding for the Wildlife Restoration Program of the Pittman-Robertson Act.

Congress isn’t supposed to use money from the two funds for other purposes because neither the LWCF nor the WRP receives money from taxpayers. The LWCF is supposed to get $900 million from offshore oil leases while the WRP gets money from archery equipment, ammunition and gun sales.

Still, WRP money is being withheld from state wildlife agencies as a result of the 2012 sequester. This year, more than $80 million in withheld wildlife restoration funding is being released to the states.

States fish and wildlife agencies are required to provide a 25 percent match to the federal funds. Over the years, matching funds from states have totaled more than $5 billion.

The commission letter emphasized that state-federal partnerships are essential to managing wildlife and their habitat.

“Unfortunately, this legacy of state-federal partnership is in danger. By not renewing LWCF and by failing to permanently fund WRP, many of the core federal programs that support habitat protection, improve public access and keep species off of the (Endangered Species Act) are gravely threatened,” the commissioners wrote in the letter.

Those core programs include Federal Land Acquisition, State Recreation Grants, the Forest Legacy Program, Endangered Species Habitat Conservation and State Wildlife Grants.

The letter was prompted by a public comment during the October commission meeting. The LWCF had just expired a week before so Montana Wildlife Federation spokesman Nick Gevock encouraged the commission to send the letter to Montana’s congressional delegation.

“Anyone who knows the history of conservation work in Montana knows how absolutely essential this program was for conservation easements and blocking up public lands. Even former Sen. Conrad Burns who used to often rail against the program brought in a lot of money from this,” Gevock said. “We really need to turn up the heat on this over the next couple of months.”

FWP Director Jeff Hagener said LWCF has been a big contributor to FWP’s work and acquisition of conservation lands and its loss would be strongly felt in department programs.

“It also impacts what’s known as the State Wildlife Grant Program, which is our primary funding source for managing non-game species, and the dollars we get for managing endangered species,” Hagener said.

Commissioner Gary Wolfe pointed out at the October meeting that Forest Legacy Program money has been critical to securing thousands of acres of conservation easements in western Montana that now serve as habitat and travel corridors for many species including elk, lynx and grizzly bears.

The letter can still exert influence, because even though the LWCF expired, almost $20 billion still remains in the LWCF account, according to the U.S. Treasury. Oil lease money is no longer being deposited into the fund, but the existing money can still be used for conservation projects as long as Congress is willing to allocate it.

That’s why some Congressmen, such as Sen. Rod Bishop, R-Utah, feel no urgency about reauthorizing the fund.

But Alan Rowsome, Wilderness Society director of government relations, told E&E Daily the longer the LWCF is expired, the more vulnerable it will be to spending cuts, and the less likely Congress will agree to returning oil-lease money to conservation efforts.

That could affect Montana’s wildlife and Montanan’s way of life. So the commissioners implored the delegation to preserve the funding as it is.

“The unpredictability and churn of the annual Congressional appropriations process can significantly impair the ability of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks to work with federal partners. LWCF has proven to be good for Montana, as well as the rest of the U.S.,” the commissioners’ letter concluded.

All three of Montana’s delegation now say they support reauthorizing the LWCF. But Commissioner Dan Vermillion said Montanans should be wary of the power of Congressional politics to change where congressmen stand.

“It’s good to reinforce our support of that position to our senators and our rep,” Vermillion said.