Daines defends environmental record; supports LWCF, opposes land transfers

Sen. Steve Daines takes questions from members of City Club Missoula on Monday. He defended his voting record on a number of conservation issues, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Sen. Steve Daines this week defended his environmental voting record by expressing support for funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund at its full amount while opposing the transfer of federal lands back to the states.

But he remained noncommittal on the appointment of William Pendley to lead the Bureau of Land Management. Pendley has advocated for transferring or selling public lands and is viewed by some as an ideological extremist on the issue.

“You have a director in Interior Secretary David Bernhardt who has been adamant in his opposition to the transfer of federal lands to the states,” Daines said. “If (Pendley) were to be confirmed, he serves underneath the secretary, who has been very clear without stuttering on this issue.”

While Daines at times has been divisive on Twitter in his frequent reference to “environmental extremists,” he appealed for bipartisanship before a packed house at City Club Missoula.

There, he promoted his own record on reaching compromise, including bills aimed at forest management, mineral withdrawals and stewardship. He also took credit for pushing Senate Republicans to support the permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

“You realize that earlier this year we passed one of the most significant land packages we’ve seen come across a president’s desk in probably a decade or even longer,” Daines said. “Having permanent authorization was very important. Up until that point, you had to wait for Congress to reauthorize. It took public lands to bring divided government together.”

But the two-dozen protesters gathered nearby accused Daines of funding LWCF at $600 million, well below its $900 million authorized limit. Daines pushed back, saying $600 million represents a significant increase over prior funding levels.

He vowed to support full funding and said he’d work to reach that mark.

“We want the $900 million number, but getting a 40 percent increase in the short term would be a pretty nice increase,” he said. “But ultimately, our goal here is full funding for LWCF. It’s all about negotiation.”

Earlier this year, Sen. Jon Tester came to Missoula to promote his Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act. Despite broad support from a diverse coalition of Montanans, including timber and conservation, the bill remains locked in a Senate committee.

Daines said he’d work to “find a path forward” for the languishing measure, but gave no clear indication on whether he supports its current form.

“The problem we have is we’ll be for something like that, and then you end up having litigation coming from frankly extreme interests that don’t represent the vast majority of Montanans, whether it’s timber projects or other kinds of projects.

“We’re engaged and we’ll continue to work on it to find a path forward. Any time you move something forward in Washington, D.C., in a standalone fashion, it takes more than that. You’ve got to figure out a way to give and take some other legislation to get it across the finish line, and I’ve got some ideas on that.”

Daines also promoted a measure to invest in national parks and address an estimated $13 million backlog in deferred maintenance. As chairman of the National Parks Subcommittee, he said he’d work to get the bill to the Senate floor, saying the president has indicated he’ll sign it.

This September, Daines and Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., will also introduce a bill addressing forest management. Daines discussed the measure with the Missoula Current earlier this month and on Monday, he called it “a great bill for Montana and California.”

“Either we’re going to better manage our forests or our forests are going to manage us,” he said. “One of the big challenges is serial litigation on timber projects in Montana, and that has got to change.”

Daines said the Forest Service has been hampered by lawsuits.

“The Forest Service is spending far too much time, effort and dollars either defending litigation or getting ready to defend it, as well as fighting fires,” he said. “We can do better, and hopefully this bill with (Feinstein), we can get that through and signed by the president.”

If forest management is not addressed, Daines said, fires will continue to grow in intensity. He said Feinstein approached him on the issue after last year’s deadly fire in Paradise, California.

“It’s a health hazard in terms of the air we breathe, and it’s also an environmental disaster in the sense of these wildfires,” he said. “The forest is a great carbon sink. It absorbs carbon but wildfire emits CO2. Post wildfire you have erosion of the watershed. There’s some common sense things we can do.”