By Brett French - July 23, 2020 - Originally published in the Billings Gazette
Legislation that would fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund was passed by the U.S. House on Wednesday by a 310-107 margin.
The Great American Outdoors Act is "a fitting complement to our successful efforts to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” said Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., during the House session. “It provides dedicated funding to increase public access to public lands across Montana.”
Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney voted against the bill, joining 104 other Republicans, two Democrats and one Independent.
The U.S. Senate passed the measure in June by a vote of 73-25, with 43 Democrats and 28 Republicans supporting the bill. Montana senators Steve Daines and Jon Tester championed the legislation while Wyoming’s two senators, Mike Enzi and John Barasso, opposed the act. In the House, the measure was again carried by Democrats with 229 voting in favor compared to 81 Republicans.
The legislation now awaits President Donald Trump’s signature. Although Trump’s 2021 budget proposal nearly zeroed out funding for LWCF, he has since tweeted support for the act.
The legislation would allocate $1.9 billion to address maintenance backlogs at national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, recreation areas and American Indian schools. The bill also provides $900 million annually for LWCF. The fund, which was enacted in 1965, has been fully funded only twice. The measure was created to “help preserve, develop, and ensure access to outdoor recreation facilities to strengthen the health of U.S. citizens,” according to the Congressional Research Service.
Opponents to the measure argued the legislation would increase the deficit, allow the government to buy more land at a time when there’s a huge backlog for maintenance on existing federal lands, and that it allows political appointees in the departments of Interior and Agriculture control over dispersal of funding rather than Congress.
Money for LWCF comes from a royalty tax levied on offshore oil and gas drilling.
According to an LWCF Coalition fact sheet, Montana received more than $600 million in LWCF funding during the past 50 years. Wyoming has received about $132 million. The funding has gone, in part, to help with federal land purchases important for wildlife habitat and recreation. The money has also provided matching grants to communities for facilities like tennis courts, swimming pools and playgrounds.
Recreation is the second largest contributor to the Montana economy, generating an estimated $7.1 billion a year in consumer spending and supporting 71,000 jobs. In Wyoming, outdoor recreation contributes an estimated $5.6 billion in consumer spending and 50,000 jobs.
Yellowstone National Park, which shares borders with Montana and Wyoming, creates an estimated $647.1 million in economic benefit with visitor spending supporting more than 7,000 jobs in local economies, according to 2018 calculations.
Conservation groups, which had lobbied long and hard for the bill, praised passage of the legislation, including GreenLatinos, a national network of Latino environmental and conservation advocates.
“The Great American Outdoors Act is a momentous achievement in the name of our most prized American landscapes and outdoors legacy,” said Land Tawney, president and CEO of Missoula-based Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. ”It’s a once in a generation piece of conservation and public access legislation that will have impacts for generations to come.”
“Montana families, communities, and businesses depend on public lands, and it’s essential that our elected officials act in their best interests,” said Kayje Booker, Montana Wilderness Association policy and advocacy director, in a statement.
The legislation has also been used to make political hay for Gianforte and Daines as they seek an election win this fall in a state keen on outdoor recreation and public lands.
“It has been a long road to get here, but we thank Congressman Gianforte for supporting this deal for Montana,” said Clayton Elliott, conservation director of Montana Trout Unlimited, in a statement released by the congressman’s office.
Passage of the bill during a time when Americans are increasingly looking to the outdoors for comfort, exercise and recreation during the COVID-19 pandemic was not overlooked.
“As a nation we are turning more than ever to our great outdoors as an antidote to the impacts of the coronavirus,” said Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited, in a statement. “Today we can take pride in knowing more hunters will have access to public lands, more anglers will be able to get on the water and more kids will be able to go kick around the soccer ball or play on LWCF-funded playgrounds.”