Kelsey Merison

BILLINGS (KPAX) - In a state like Montana, where many recreate in the great outdoors, four new bills that would defund conservation land programs from U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale came as a shock to conservationists.

The quartet of bills would essentially eliminate funding for the Land and Water and Conservation Fund (LWCF), which generates hundreds of millions of dollars annually to help federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service, buy land and undertake projects to promote conservation.

Rosendale said the reallocation of money proposed in his legislation is necessary to help cut the national debt.

MTN News reached out to the office of Rosendale, a Republican, for comment. Communications Director Grace Davis said Rosendale was not available for an interview, but she provided a written statement.

“Because our nation is $31 trillion in debt, I’ve worked with my colleagues to identify areas to reduce spending across the federal government while protecting Social Security, Medicare, and veterans benefits," the statement read. "The legislation that I cosponsored only prevents new federal funding for land acquisitions in FY24 – it does not impact the maintenance of parks and facilities.”

But Montana conservationists were shocked by the proposed bills and claimed they are "massively out of step."

"The funding programs that these bills would seek to gut are some of the major mechanisms that Montana has expanded and improved. Our wildlife habitat, our hunting and fishing heritage, our way of life. It’s very troubling. And I think it really just reflects a disconnect to the important things that matter and the outdoor way of life that Montanans identify with," said Mary Hollow, the executive director for Prickly Pear Land Trust and a board member for the Montana Association of Land Trusts, on Tuesday. "Not to mention our outdoor economy. Which, in terms of jobs, represents the largest economy in the state next to agriculture. These funding programs, if they were to be gutted, would negatively impact both of those economies. Agriculture and the outdoor sector."

According to Hollow, Prickly Pear Land Trust works to connect the land to the people in Montana.

“Prickly Pear Land Trust is one of a handful of land trusts that operate in the state of Montana," Hollow said. "We do a number of things including trails, park, and recreational access. Private land, family farm and ranch conservation projects."

Hollow has worked for years on LWCF projects and said they are crucial to Montana's economy and have long received bipartisan support. This project's funding would be cut with the proposed bills.

“Montana has always been independent in how we operate. And LWCF is one of many examples that receives national bipartisan support. Members on both sides of the aisle for the entire length of the program’s history,” Hollow said. “Conrad Burns (former Republican U.S. senator), I worked with in my early years on LWCF projects, was one of the biggest proponents of this program. Max Baucus (former Democratic U.S. senator), (current Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon) Tester, (current Republican U.S. Sen. Steve) Daines, we have enjoyed incredible support. Bipartisan support throughout the length of this program in its existence in Montana."

Rep. Matt Rosendale (Mike Dennison/MTN News)
Rep. Matt Rosendale (Mike Dennison/MTN News)

Hollow added the LWCF is "off budget", meaning it's funded through fees imposed on off-shore oil drilling, not by taxpayers.

"(The program's) funding doesn't impact the budget, which means Rosendale's move is either uninformed or not transparent," Hollow said.

And Hollow fears what kind of impact these bills would have on Montana's economy.

“This would so massively affect, in the most negative way, anyone in this state who enjoys hunting, fishing, and an outdoor way of life. Wildlife, water, you name it. There isn’t a funding source that’s more important for those things than the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” Hollow said. “It’s somewhat akin to say, if South Dakota were to say, ‘You know what? We don’t want any Farm Bill funding this year. We don’t need that, we don’t think that’s going to be important this year. So we’d actually just like to get rid of Farm Bill funding.’ I mean that’s what this is like."

Hollow explained the LWCF has funded many projects in the past.

“Huge amounts of funding made the fisheries in the Yellowstone River healthy and fishable for a long time into the future. LWCF was a major player in that,” Hollow said. “Especially Eastern Montana, things like local swimming pools and community parks for the smaller communities with a smaller tax base. They really rely on LWCF programs for local parks and pools in particular.”

When she heard the news of the proposed bills, Hollow said she was shocked.

“I was appalled. I think my first thought was, it reflects (Rosendale's) disconnect to his own understanding of our way of life and the things that really matter in this state,” Hollow said. “Honestly they’re stunning, really troubling and massively out of step for the things that matter in Montana."

Hollow is joined in the opinion by Anthony Licata, the communications director for Montana Conservation Voters.

“(These programs are) extremely important. The Land and Water Conservation Fund generates, or has generated, hundreds of millions of dollars for conservation projects across the country. And here in Montana, it’s no different,” said Licata on Tuesday. "I hunt, I fish, I camp, I hike, just like most everybody else in this place. And so that’s why we’re pretty passionate about this, and think this is a horrible idea, and why I think so many Montanans will too when they hear about it."

Montana Conservation Voters works to ensure politicians and representatives who support conservation are elected.

Licata said these proposed bills were surprising following the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act in 2020.

“What’s really surprising about this is just two years ago, the Great American Outdoors Act was passed with bipartisan support. Supported by Sen. Daines, supported by (current governor and former GOP Congressman Greg) Gianforte when he was in Congress, Sen. Tester. It had such bipartisan support in Montana because everyone recognized these funds needed to be protected because of what they give to all Montanans," Licata said. “The whole reason everybody got behind the Great American Outdoors Act, Democrats, Republicans, all Montanans, is to protect this funding in perpetuity. And now, two years later, it’s like Rosendale wasn’t even paying attention to what the people wanted or all of that hard work that was done."

Licata explained these funds are crucial to our state's economy.

“Clearly outdoor recreation drives Montana and Montana lifestyle. 75% of Montana’s fishing access sites were paid for with funds from the LWCF. I don’t think I have to tell you how crazy Montanans is about fishing, or how much it drives our economy,” Licata said.

Licata added these funds allocated to conservation programs are coming from off-shore drilling revenue.

"This would slash about $392 million in funding that’s slated for voluntary public land acquisition from the Parks Service, Forest Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service. $392 million. You know, this program, the LWCF was created in 1964. And it’s directed millions in federal revenue from offshore drilling to conservation programs," Licata said. "This is money that is not coming from taxpayers. We’re not asking people to open their pocketbooks and shell out for this. This is revenue from offshore drilling that goes back to the people through conservation programs. It helps give them access to public lands and public waters and parks."

According to Licata, this funding stretches down to the local level.

“Go to a town park. There’s a good chance that it received funding from LWCF,” Licata said. “This just really seems like a strange place to look for savings when it provides so many benefits, has so much support across the spectrum, and it’s so core to the interest of Montanans. Not only their lifestyle, but also the economy's. The recreation economy that drives a lot of this state."

“This is just so massively out of step for a state that depends on its outdoor economy to support the way of life that we all love in this state," Hollow said. "With all due respect to Mr. Rosendale, this is not Montana. Your job is to represent Montana, and if this is what you think that looks like, it’s incompetence. I don’t know how else to say it."