President signs act protecting Yellowstone’s gateway, reauthorizing LWCF

Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte, just left of President Donald Trump, was invited to Tuesday’s White House signing ceremony. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

With a stroke of the president’s pen, the U.S. now has five new national parks and other public lands have been preserved, but a number of Montanans are disappointed about the administration’s lack of budgetary support for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump signed the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act, bipartisan legislation that combined more than 100 land bills to protect special places in almost every state.

The law adds 1.3 million acres of new wilderness, designates nearly 700,000 acres of new recreation and conservation areas and protects 350 river miles under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Originally titled the Natural Resources Conservation Act, the House voted to rename the bill in honor of the late Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, who served in Congress for 58 years and sponsored many conservation bills, including the Dingell-Johnson Act, which taxes fishing tackle to pay for state fisheries conservation. He died in early February.

In Montana, the law withdraws 30,000 acres of national forest land north of Yellowstone National Park from mineral development, much to the relief of those in the Paradise Valley who were opposed to new gold mines proposed by Lucky Minerals and others.

Montana groups lauded Tuesday’s signing, which included projects long on conservationists’ wish lists.

Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Greg Gianforte were quick in praising the bill’s signing and importance to the state.

“Today marks a victory for all of the Montanans who value our public lands and the businesses that rely on our growing outdoor economy,” Tester said.  “This bill – which is now the law of the land – is further proof that when folks speak up and work together, we can change our state for the better.”

Added Gianforte, who was invited to the signing ceremony as a fellow Republican and consistent supporter of the president: “Today, we celebrate this new law, this victory for Montana. Communities throughout Montana came together in support of conserving our public lands, and they deserve a lot of credit for getting this across the finish line. I’ll continue working with Montanans to improve public access to our public lands and protect our Montana way of life.”

A long list of business and environmental leaders followed suit.

“March 12, 2019 will forever live in the hearts of the local businesses and communities of the Paradise Valley,” said Colin Davis, owner of Chico Hot Springs Resort at the base of Emigrant Peak – where one of the proposed mines would have been located.

“The Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act is as much about the people who live here, as it is about the forests, the mountains, and the river that runs through the heart of it all,” Davis said. “This legislation reflects the hearts of the people who make this part of Montana home, and we are grateful Montana’s delegation pushed it over the finish line.”

“Today is a momentous day for Yellowstone National Park and the robust economy and outdoor heritage at its northern gateway,” said Caroline Byrd, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “Montanans from all backgrounds and beliefs united to protect more than 30,000 acres outside Yellowstone from gold mining. Thanks to our Montana delegation, spearheaded by Senator Jon Tester, and the 420 members of the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, we have proven that Yellowstone is more valuable than gold.”

Land Tawney, CEO of Missoula-based Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, praised the advocates and congressional leaders who pushed the bill through, especially during the past two months.

The bill gained momentum in early February when the GOP-led Senate passed it on a resounding vote of 92-8. Two weeks later, it was no surprise when the measure passed the Democratic-led House by a vote of 363-62. With such overwhelming bipartisan support, few doubted the president would sign it.

“Together, the public lands grassroots nation rose up to ensure the passage of this historic bill,” Tawney said. “We wrote letters, we made phone calls, we met with our elected officials, and we traveled from across the country to Washington, D.C., and together, we made our voices heard. Today, we can celebrate a victory that has been years in the making.”

The legislation also included permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a major goal of conservationists and Montana’s congressional delegation. Created in 1965, the fund uses offshore oil and gas royalties to pay for community recreational facilities and public land preservation.

But Congress allowed the funding to lapse last year, leaving many lands proposals in limbo.

With permanent authorization, those projects should now move forward.

“Montana’s public lands provide a platform for economic advantages, and invaluable business opportunities across the state,” said Marne Hayes of Business for Montana’s Outdoors. The Land and Water Conservation Fund has contributed roughly $587 billion for recreation and conservation projects across Montana since its inception over 50 years ago.

There remains an obstacle, however, Tester said in praising Tuesday’s signing. Trump drastically cut funding for LWCF in his administration’s budget proposal, released Monday.

In his proposed budget for 2020, Trump wants the LWCF to receive just $89 million of the $900 million for which it’s authorized. And most of that money would go to state assistance grants.

Trump also tried to low-ball the fund last year, but Congress bumped the amount up to $371 million, which is still only about a third of the authorized amount.

Chris Saeger, director of the Kalispell-based Western Values Project, said the fund already potentially lost $400 million after going almost year without authorization.

“While the bipartisan work of Congress to pass this important public lands package is an important step in the right direction, without full funding for public lands access programs, like the Land and Water Conservation Fund, America’s public lands, parks and communities still are left with an empty promise. We need Congress to again do what this administration has failed to do: fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” Saeger said in a statement.

Tester was more pointed: “It is easy to understand why folks hate Washington when politicians cheer on the President as he signs a bill to authorize LWCF just one day after trying to gut its funding.I hope the president’s cheerleaders put money where their mouth is and fully fund this critical conservation initiative.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.