The debate that occurred during a Legislative hearing is probably a microcosm of the Congressional struggle taking place over the re-authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
On Thursday, the members of the Water Policy Interim Committee argued about whether they should send a letter supporting Sen. Richard Burr’s (R-N.C.) bill to permanently reauthorize the 50-year-old Land and Water Conservation Fund.
WPIC staffer Jason Mohr said Gov. Steve Bullock already sent a letter supporting Senate Bill 338, which has been co-sponsored by Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines.
Rep. Ryan Zinke also supports a companion bill in the U.S. House and has introduced a number of Montana projects to be recipients for this year’s allotment of LWCF funds.
Rep. Zach Brown, D-Bozeman, said he would support the letter as an endorsement of the bipartisan efforts of the Montana delegation. He also pointed out that the $900 million the fund is authorized comes out of offshore oil and gas royalties, not income-tax coffers.
“This is a good thing for the extractive industries that we are able to capture some of the tax revenue and put it to good use in terms of protecting access to public lands and providing for clean water and wildlife habitat,” Brown said. “I think it’s a great signal from the state of Montana that we appreciate our delegation putting politics aside and working for something that is good for Montana.”
Rep. Kathleen Williams, D-Bozeman, said the LWCF has helped counties and towns construct hundreds of playgrounds, pools, skateboard parks and trails so she supported permanent re-authorization. More than 800 community projects throughout Montana have received LWCF matching funds over the years.
But Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, said she did not support permanently reauthorizing a fund that would “buy up more land and turn it over to the federal government.”
Fielder argued that federal land management agencies didn’t keep up with a backlog of maintenance and an expensive summer of wildfire suppression so they shouldn’t get more land.
However, an August 2014 U.S. Department of Agriculture analysis showed that the maintenance backlog has little to do with poor management. Actually, Congress has refused to increase Forest Service funding in recent years while at the same time, wildfire suppression costs have eaten up a larger proportion of the Forest Service budget.
In 1995, 16 percent of the budget went to firefighting, but that had jumped to 42 percent by 2014. This year, firefighting has taxed the budget even further, leaving little money for other projects, such as maintenance and enforcement.
Fielder sponsored bills during the 2015 Legislature that, among other things, would have created a committee to explore giving federal land to Montana or pushing for more county commission influence over public land.
“I don’t dislike the entire program, but I don’t think it’s in our best interest as a state to continue advocating to turn Montana over to federal control. So I’m not going to support a blanket letter that would recommend making the fund a permanent fund,” Fielder said.
WPIC chairman Sen. Bradley Hamlett, D-Cascade, said most of the LWCF went toward conservation easements, especially along the Rocky Mountain Front, which kept the land in the hands of ranchers. The fund has also been invaluable to land trusts and sportsmens groups for buying land or easements that open access to other public land in the state.
For example, the Rappold Ranch near Dupuyer has been able to get several easements through the LWCF, which has allowed Karl Rappold to keep his adult son on the ranch and kept the land open and intact.
But Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, echoed Fielder’s argument that the Forest Service had a 15-year backlog of maintenance and said the LWCF money might be better put toward that.
“As a legislator that carried part of the state match for leveraging some of these funds for some of the (Forest) Legacy acquisitions in the state – Plum Creek grounds - and being someone that was involved in a $35 million conservation easement on 105,000 acres of ground that provided access to public lands that were in danger of being turned into gated communities in my own county, I believe there are some good merits to this fund,” Vincent said. “But when you’re looking at acquiring lands in a county that is already not able to meet basic obligations because of limited amount of private land already, there should be some discussions of that.”
Vincent said his county is 76 percent public land as opposed to places in eastern Montana where most of the land is private. Fielder said her county is 80 percent public land.
Fielder said she wanted to reform the act such that no LWCF funds could be used to acquire land unless it had the consent of county commissioners.
“I’m not looking for local input; I’m looking for local consent,” Fielder said.
The LWCF was never used to buy land without the consent of the landowner, Hamlett said. Landowners should be able to sell to whomever they choose.
“It’s a willing seller and buyer – I haven’t heard of any condemnation,” Hamlett said.
The committee considered modifying the letter to say it supported LWCF in theory but reforms were needed.
Brown said he would be unwilling to sign a letter that didn’t support permanent reauthorization since that is the point of Burr’s bill. Although the committee agreed that many parts of the LWCF were good, they were probably too far apart on key elements to draft a letter in time, Brown said.
The LWCF sunsets on Sept. 30 unless Congress reauthorizes the law. Many believe Congress will merely extend it another year through the use of a continuing resolution.
Hamlett encouraged the committee to make some sort of statement, saying that a letter from the WPIC carries some weight.
“You’re probably only going to get one shot to send a letter,” Hamlett said. “It’s either act now or forever hold your piece.”
After committee members indicated they were open to further discussion, Vincent said he would try to craft a letter that the majority of the committee could support and they could approve it via conference call.