The 50-year-old Land and Water Conservation Fund will sunset in September unless Congress renews it. If Congress supports it, Montanans will be able to continue creating more parks, preserving more hunting spots and saving working ranches and timber sources. But with just about a month to go until it expires, the fund needs a big show of support.
Missoula residents don’t need to look far to find areas where LWCF money has already been put to work.
Open lands on both Mount Sentinel and Mount Jumbo were bought with LCWF funds. So was McCormick Park so that’s where supporters gathered with Sen. Jon Tester Monday afternoon to emphasize the need for quick action.
Many in the crowd were hunters and anglers but Missoula Mayor John Engen pointed out that the LWCF pays for city parks that are important to those who don’t tote a rod or a rifle.
“This place was here when I was a kid. It’s a place where kids of all ages get to participate in activities that teach them about what it’s like to be a good citizen. What it’s like to play on a team, what it’s like to take care of a small piece of land, what it’s like to acknowledge a great stream like the Clark Fork River,” Engen said. “All because folks who demonstrated leadership years ago anticipated that it wasn’t all about them and the moment. They anticipated that it was about everyone else and the long haul.”
Congress passed the Land and Water Conservation Act in 1964 to take up to $900 million in offshore oil and gas leases each year and use it to build or set aside places for Americans to play. None of the money comes out of taxpayers’ pockets but they get the benefit.
That should have made it easy for politicians to support. But in all but two of the past 50 years, Congress has shunted a majority of the money toward other budgets. Since 2008, money allocated to the LWCF has averaged around $250 million.
Still, that’s been enough to make a difference for some Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation projects, said Blake Henning, RMEF Vice President of Lands and Conservation.
The RMEF has been able to apply for several LWCF grants to buy conservation easements and property in many western states. Most recently in Montana, they’ve closed a couple of purchases that have increased sportsmen’s access, including 200 acres on Tenderfoot Creek, which feeds the Smith River.
“Big projects like that get a lot of notoriety but there are little projects that may connect a county road to a trailhead into public land. LWCF becomes a critical tool to provide funding to make those small acquisitions. We sure would like Congress to permanently reauthorize it so we can continue to use it as a tool for access,” Henning said.
Blackfoot Valley landowner Denny Iverson said the valley wouldn’t have kept its working ranches and open feel without the LWCF. It helped ranchers put conservation easements on land that they might have otherwise had to sell to developers.
Ranchers on the Rocky Mountain Front are trying to do the same thing, but since the LWCF isn’t fully funded, some have to wait in line, Iverson said.
“When we protect a farm or ranch, we’re protecting habitat too. It’s important to the agricultural community to keep this fund not only reauthorized but eventually fully funded,” Iverson said. “A few of us ranchers go back to DC every year or so. It’s important and so we do it. But a phone call is just as important. So I urge you all to pick up the phone, call your senator and let’s get this thing done.”
Tester listened to all the speakers’ comments but doesn’t need to be convinced about the importance of LWCF to Montana. He’s proposed increases to the amount allotted to the LWCF and has already backed bills intended to permanently reauthorize the LWCF.
But he said he could only do so much and called on the crowd to advocate for the fund.
“What’s different between 1965 and today is that our landscapes are disappearing pretty rapidly. So the opportunity to increase habitat or increase the availability of good clean water for fisheries is rapidly going away because of increased pressure due to development. So it’s important that we step up now,” Tester said. “We’ve got a scrap ahead of us but it’ll be a fun scrap. If we get enough people involved, we’re going to be successful.”
But that success may not immediately come in the form of permanent reauthorization since some Congressmen are opposed to the LWCF.
In January, Congress haggled over a bill to authorize the Keystone XL pipeline as senators tried to attach 240 unrelated amendments. One amendment, sponsored by North Carolina Republican Richard Burr, would have permanently reauthorized the LWCF.
A majority of the Senate voted for Burr’s amendment. But the 59-37 vote was one short of the two-thirds needed to defeat a filibuster so it failed.
Tester voted for Burr’s amendment, but Sen. Steve Daines voted against.
Since then, Daines has reversed his stand and is calling for permanent reauthorization, according to Daines spokesman Charles Robison.
Tester told MontanaOTG the LWCF would probably not be reauthorized this year but might be extended with a continuing resolution, much as happened with the Farm Bill in 2012 and 2013.
“That’s probably a scenario that’s likely to happen at this point in time. So that’s why it’s important that people get involved,” Tester said.