Interior Department withholds project list for LWCF funding

Sen. Steve Daines gathers with conservation leaders in Lolo in the spring to promote the passage and full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Several lawmakers, including Montana Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester, are now asking the Interior Department to release the list of projects earmarked to receive funding. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

The Great American Outdoors Act was supposed to funnel oil and gas royalty money to public land projects and help chip away at the maintenance backlog. But the Trump administration hasn’t proposed any projects to receive the Land and Water Conservation Fund money.

Monday was the deadline for the Trump administration to submit to Congress two separate lists of priority projects for funding in fiscal year 2021: one for the LWCF, one for the deferred maintenance backlog. While the Interior and Agriculture departments submitted lists for deferred maintenance projects, no list for LCWF projects accompanied them.

“They failed to deliver a list to Congress, and the Interior Department’s apparent lack of action is as disappointing as it is confusing,” Bill Lee, senior vice president of policy, advocacy and government relations for the Trust for Public Land, told E&E News on Tuesday.

The Great American Outdoors Act was enacted with great fanfare in August.

Conservationists and land trusts celebrated because it guaranteed the Land and Water Conservation Fund would receive $900 million annually, providing more certainty on how much money would be available. In the past, Congress often short-changed the fund, allocating less than $200 million.

The Missoula-based Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation claimed to have played a key part in passing the Great American Outdoors Act by providing information on how $225,000 in LWCF funding helped secure 442 acres of the organization’s Falls Creek project on the Rocky Mountain Front.

“This is a landmark accomplishment and a tremendous victory for conservation,” Kyle Weaver, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation president, said in August. “It simply cannot be overstated how vital this program is for our public lands, wildlife and outdoor recreation.”

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has regularly used LWCF funding to help buy wildlife habitat. So RMEF project managers know organizations hoping to use the funding have to plan ahead because once a project is developed and submitted the selection process takes at least a year.

RMEF spokesman Mark Holyoak said the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation submitted several projects a year ago for LWCF funding. Project managers hoped some would be on the Interior Department’s FY 2021 list. They would rather not have to push projects back, because delayed funding can sometimes cause agreements to fall apart.

“The projects in the hopper are mostly with the Forest Service and one with the Bureau of Land Management,” Holyoak said. “We’re always seeking funding and just try to do the best we can in putting those projects together and making them happen. For now, we’ll just exercise patience. Given the timing of everything and what’s going on right now, we don’t know. Changes coming or not coming as far as a new administration or the current administration. I don’t think anyone in the world really knows.”

Funding from LWCF in the past has gone to secure key public access across Montana, including portions of Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

Fortunately, the Lolo National Forest just submitted the Missoula Valley Frontcountry Access Project for consideration so it will be in the running for FY2022 funding. But now, if a list doesn’t go to Congress this year, it may have to compete with projects deferred from this year’s list.

Although the Interior Department missed the deadline, it may still be able to correct the problem. Several lawmakers, including Montana Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester, are asking the Interior Department to release the list.

The Great American Outdoors Act also created a five-year trust fund to address $20 billion worth of deferred maintenance projects at national parks and on public lands.

The potential $9.5 billion of the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund will be parsed out over five years. The money comes from half of all revenues from oil, gas, coal, alternative, and renewable energy development on federal lands and waters, up to $1.9 billion per year.

The National Park Service gets the lion’s share of the money at 70% while 15% goes to the U.S. Forest Service, or up to $285 million. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Education also receive 5% each.

The Forest Service announced on Monday that it had sent its list of deferred maintenance projects to Congress. Among the more than 550 projects nationwide, 54 Montana projects made the list, including a dozen projects on the Lolo National Forest, eight on the Flathead National Forest and six on the Bitterroot.

When asked for specifics on those projects, U.S. Forest Service national press officer Babete Anderson said no more information could be provided.

“The list is the extent of the information on projects that we are sharing at this time, as numbers are still being finalized and we want to do everything we can to ensure efficient use of these funds. We hope to have more information soon,” Anderson wrote in an email.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.