Tester, Daines and Montana cities call for full funding for LWCF

Four months after the Senate passed a public lands package reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund, its backers are still pushing Congress to fund the program at its full authority.

Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines, who supported the program’s reauthorization this year, continued their efforts this week to see the program receive its full $900 million commitment.

That has happened only twice since the program was authorized in 1965.

“LWCF is the best conservation tool we have,” Tester said this week. “But the fight to fund the program every year puts our public lands — and the people and businesses that rely on them — in jeopardy.”

Tester first introduced a bill to reauthorize and fully fund the program in 2009 and has done so every Congress since. But the Trump administration is looking to zero out the program’s funds, even though the money comes from royalties collected on offshore drilling, not taxpayer dollars.

LWCF takes that funding and uses it to preserve habitat, create new parks and provide access to public lands, among other things. Since its establishment, it has invested roughly $540 million to support outdoor recreation in Montana.

That included open space on Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel, along with five of the eight fishing access sites along the Bitterroot River.

Addressing members of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources this week, Daines described LWCF as vital to Montana’s economy and way of life, and he urged his colleagues to fund the program at its fully $900 million authority.

“While enacting permanent reauthorization was important to ensure the American people the program was going to stay, there is substantial need in Montana to provide the certainty that funding will also exist year after year,” Daines said. “LWCF has been absolutely critical to the state of Montana.”

During the hearing, Daines asked Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation, to speak on the program’s importance. O’Mara called it “the most important step” the nation can take toward conservation.

“Allowing that kind of access creates opportunities for local economies in desperate need of more opportunities right now,” O’Mara added. “There are a lot of priorities before Congress, but this is definitely one of our top priorities to try and get done this year.”

It’s also a priority for elected officials across the West, including a dozen from Montana. Earlier this month, 151 civic leaders signed a national letter to members of Congress urging them to fully fund the program.

The signers included the entire Whitefish City Council and Missoula City Council chairman Bryan von Lossberg, along with officials in Helena and Red Lodge. The city of Missoula also passed a resolution last year calling for the program’s restoration.

President Trump and Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt’s proposed Fiscal Year 2020 budget fails to fund LWCF at its full amount. Instead, it proposes a near elimination of LWCF funding.

“Many projects funded by the LWCF have an uncertain future due to the current lack of funding and historically unpredictable nature of funding for the program,” the letter reads in part. “We urge you to pass full and dedicated funding to ensure our public lands receive the protection they deserve now and into the future.”

The letter also notes the value of outdoor recreation and the role in plays in rural economies. For every $1 invested in the program, the letter suggests, it nets a $4 return.

“It’s critical to supporting our $7 billion outdoor economy,” Daines said. “And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If you look at the reason companies are growing and the reason people are moving to Montana, it’s because of the access to our public lands and the way of life we have.”