FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - 2/9/2023
Jim Klug, Business for Montana Outdoors: 406-581-6434
Frank Szollosi, Montana Wildlife Federation: 406-417-9909
Whitney Tawney, Montana Conservation Voters Ed Fund: 202-412-4793
Noah Marion, Wild Montana: 406-624-9622
Kevin Farron, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers: 406-540-3956
Montanans Rebuke Legislation to Limit Access and Habitat Funding
Bill excludes voter-approved Habitat Montana funding authorized by previous Legislature
A new bill being considered by Montana lawmakers would permanently restrict the State’s ability to enhance public access, protect critical wildlife habitat and support working farms and ranches.
HB 462 seeks to redistribute how recreational cannabis tax revenue is spent in Montana. Over the next biennium, it would strip over $30 million in voter-approved revenue from the Habitat Montana Program and permanently block the program from tapping those funds again.
"In its current form, this bill would limit the state’s long-term capability to protect our public access and wildlife habitat”, said Jim Klug, a fly fishing business owner who is also a member of Business for Montana’s Outdoors. “It’s regrettable there are still lawmakers seeking to override the will of voters, and ignore that Montana’s way of life depends on access to quality wildlife habitat to hunt, fish, hike, and camp. Investing in these elements is critical, and Montanans are paying attention.”
Previous attempts to raid the Habitat Montana Program have met with opposition by hunters, conservationists and public access advocates. That was the case last November when the Governor’s Executive Budget proposed to block the program from receiving it's share of the tax revenue.
Hunters to lawmakers: honor prior agreement
In a letter sent last week to House and Senate leadership, a coalition of 16 Montana hunting organizations have asked lawmakers to honor Habitat Montana’s revenue share that was authorized during the 2021 legislative session.
They argue the Habitat Montana Program must keep pace with demands for the program and skyrocketing land appraisals. A recent report from the United States Department of Agriculture reports that Montana’s agricultural land values have soared over 10 percent in the past year.
“Within the next five years, FWP is aggressively seeking to increase their habitat work, in addition to keeping up with everyday demands from landowners for traditional fee simple acquisitions and conservation easements,” reads the letter. “As we strive to meet these obligations, Montana must be prepared for land appraisal costs to continue to climb. Funding from recreational marijuana excise taxes will facilitate more of these transactions, which benefit landowners, ranchers, farmers, and hunters alike.”
Frank Szollosi, Executive Director of Montana Wildlife Federation, said in releasing the letter, “Hunters and landowners came together in 1987 to create Habitat Montana to enhance private land habitat and public trust wildlife. Siphoning voter-approved funding from landowners and conservation is short-sighted and a disservice to our shared heritage.”
Conservation groups say cuts unnecessary
Meanwhile a coalition of Montana conservation groups who backed a 2020 ballot initiative to boost conservation funding are ramping up efforts to protect Habitat Montana’s share of the pie.
“It makes no sense to raid a popular program that benefits access and conservation when we have a multi-billion dollar surplus,” said Wild Montana State Policy Director Noah Marion. "How the state spends its money needs to reflect the values of its people and Montanans across the board value conservation and public access. The state just used Habitat MT funds to improve access to over 100,000 acres in the Big Snowies, and now the legislature is considering this bill to undermine those types of investments while our state grows dramatically.”
According to the most recent estimates, cannabis sales are projected to bring in $50.7 million of revenue in fiscal year 2024 and $57.5 million in fiscal year 2025. That’s enough revenue to protect Habitat Montana's share, support the cost of new programs proposed by HB 462, and still contribute over $70 in the State’s general fund for this budget period.
“When Montanans vote, we expect our elected leaders to listen,” said Whitney Tawney, Executive Director of Montana Conservation Voters Education Fund. “Montanans overwhelmingly supported an initiative to direct a portion of revenue from marijuana sales to increase public access to the outdoors and conserve wildlife and public lands. Why would the legislature and governor work against the clear will of Montana voters?”
“The Habitat Montana program is our state's best tool at keeping Montana Montana,” said Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Regional Policy Manager Kevin Farron. “It keeps working, family ranches on the landscape, improves access, preserves quality habitat, and adds hunting opportunities in a voluntary way. This is exactly the kind of program we should be celebrating, promoting and bolstering, not having to defend. It's a shame that it continues to be in the crosshairs of both the Governor's budget and legislation coming out of Helena, especially when the voters unequivocally asked for this.”