Since September when Congress allowed the Land and Water Conservation Fund to lapse, Montana’s conservation groups, sportsmen and land trusts have pushed for re-authorization while anticipating efforts to change the law. Those efforts took form when Utah Rep. Rob Bishop introduced his bill to vastly change LWCF funding priorities.
After leading the opposition that killed the LWCF in September, Bishop unveiled his ideas of what the LWCF should be in the House Natural Resources Committee Thursday morning.
Bishop’s bill would diminish or eliminate the federal-lands side of the original program, which would also limit opportunities for private landowners to create conservation easements or work with partners on projects that would conserve landholdings rather than develop them.
Also, Bishop would allocate 20 percent of LWCF funds to "workforce education," such as training programs for oil and gas industry workers.
Over the past decade, Congress has cut recent LWCF allocations to between $250 million and $300 million a year, an amount that must be divvied among dozens of worthwhile projects in 50 states. A 20-percent reduction means $50 million less for those projects.
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers President and CEO Land Tawney was in Washington, D.C., in September lobbying for permanent re-authorization of the LWCF and was disappointed with Bishop’s proposal.
“LWCF has proven to be the most cost-effective tool available for conservation programs in the United States. Congressman Bishop's proposed legislation not only fundamentally changes LWCF; it also flies in the face of the values of anyone who hunts and fishes," Tawney said.
The original Land and Water Conservation fund was supposed to receive $900 million annually from offshore oil leases to put toward conservation and recreation projects for the American public.
The money went into two pots. One chunk of money went to state wildlife and parks departments to provide matching grants for city, county and state recreational facilities and lands. The requirement of matching money ensured that there was always local buy-in on a project.
The other chunk was a federal account that Congressmen could apply to for federal land purchases within their state or that agencies could use to provide matching grants for land purchases or conservation easements.
That is the portion that recently provided $15.5 million for the Southern Whitefish Range conservation easements and several other Montana projects including the Montana Legacy Project that preserved thousands of acres of Plumb Creek Timber land. Many of Montana’s LWCF-funded conservation easements have helped ranchers stay on their land and kept timber companies solvent during hard times.
That is the portion that Bishop is gutting.
The Trust for Public Lands has played a big part in acquiring the grant money for land trades, purchases and conservation easements in Montana and other states. TPL president Will Rogers said few of the collaborative agreements, if any, would have become a reality without the substantial sums provided by the LWCF.
"At a time when Americans seem more politically divided than ever, LWCF is example of something which we all agree on," said Rogers. "It is supported by both Republicans and Democrats in the House and the Senate, and if it were allowed to come for a simple vote in each chamber, it would overwhelmingly pass."
Montana Wildlife Federation president Kathy Hadley said Bishop’s tweaks were unnecessary.
“Reform is just a diversion to run the clock down on the program. At best, it means taking funding away from America’s outdoor families. At worst, it means killing LWCF completely,” Hadley said.
Sen. Jon Tester, a staunch supporter of the LWCF, opposes Bishop's bill. Knowing how much Montana has gained through more than 700 grants worth hundreds of millions of dollars over the past half century, he has lobbied for permanent authorization of the act and full funding. Congress voted to give the LWCF its full $900 million only twice in 50 years.
“This bill is proof that there are people in Washington who don’t understand how important public lands are to Montana’s outdoor economy and way of life. Gutting the Land and Water Conservation Fund would destroy jobs and prevent hunters, anglers and outdoorsmen and women from enjoying more of Montana’s best outdoor places. I will work hard to make sure this bill doesn’t gain any traction in Congress and continue my fight to permanently authorize and fully fund LWCF for future generations,” Tester said in a release.
In January, there was a chance to secure that permanent authorization when Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., tried to add an amendment to a large funding bill that would have made the LWCF permanent. Tester voted for it, but Sen. Steve Daines voted against it and the amendment died by one vote in the Senate.
Daines tried to promote his own amendment that acknowledged the importance of the LWCF, but like Bishop’s bill, would “include improvements to the structure of the program to more effectively manage existing Federal land.”
Since then, Daines has had a change of heart and now fully supports the original LWCF as does Congressman Ryan Zinke.
Bishop’s bill is only in committee, but with a new Speaker of the House, it could make it to the floor where it could pass. But passing the Senate is more difficult.
Meanwhile, a bill to permanently reauthorize the original act has been re-introduced with Tester and Daines as co-sponsors.
Neither bill is likely to move through fast unless attached to a must-pass budget bill. But obviously, attaching amendments to such bills isn’t easy either.
It’s clear that Montanans value programs like the LWCF because two-thirds say access to the outdoors is a big reason they live in Montana, according to a Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks survey.
“Montana has long been a leader in the effort to fund and reauthorize LWCF,” said Glenn Marx, Executive Director of the Montana Association of Land Trusts. “We will not let attacks on the program distract us from moving forward.”