By Eric Tegethoff - November 28, 2018 - Originally published in Public News Service.
HELENA, Mont. - Groups in Montana and nationwide are urging Congress to reauthorize and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund as the lame-duck session ticks down.
The fund, which provides access to public lands, expired in September. Montana has received nearly $600 million since the fund was created more than 50 years ago.
Tom Healy, a board member for the Montana chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said the program opened up 13,000 acres to the public last year in northwestern Montana. A similar project adjacent to Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge is slated for 2020, but Healy said it won't happen without LWCF reauthorization.
"This is hunting grounds that families in the Flathead Valley have been using for a couple generations," he said, "and unless LWCF can fund an opportunity like this, that'll go away, and those lands will be sold into the private sector."
The program has provided funds to open nearly 70 percent of public fishing access sites in Montana and also funds facilities such as playgrounds, swimming pools and urban bike paths. LWCF dollars are from royalties paid by energy companies drilling offshore, meaning it doesn't rely on taxpayer dollars.
Groups such as Trout Unlimited, the Montana Sportsmen Alliance and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership also are pushing for reauthorization. Rick Potts, Interim executive director of Montana Conservation Voters, said the program has bipartisan support and that its fate is, in part, in the hands of U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who sits on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Daines has issued a letter supporting it, but Potts said congressional efforts are stalled at the moment.
"It's discouraging, actually, to watch it languish and die, and expire in Congress when really, there was no need for that to happen," Potts said. "There's no need for the LWCF to be used as a political football."
Still, Potts said he is optimistic the program will gain approval. Along with supporting the state's booming recreation industry, which generates more than $7 billion in consumer spending a year, Potts said the LWCF has been integral to Montanans' way of life.
"Every county has benefited to one degree or another from LWCF dollars," he said. "We absolutely would not be able to enjoy the breadth and depth of amenities and quality of life that we enjoy as Montanans were it not for LWCF."