By Laura Lundquist - June 17, 2020 - Originally posted in the Missoula Current
With U.S. Senate passage of a significant public lands bill, it’s likely that the Land and Water Conservation Fund will finally receive full funding while other money will help reduce the maintenance backlog on federal lands.
On Wednesday, Montanans celebrated a second conservation victory in as many days when the U.S. Senate passed the Great American Outdoors Act on a bipartisan vote of 73-25. The Act appeared to lose some traction with a handful of Republicans after last week’s vote of 80-17 to limit debate on the bill and go straight to a vote, but Montana’s senators both supported the Act.
Passage of the Act followed on the heels of an appeals court ruling that likely freed the wild Badger Two Medicine region from the threat of its last oil lease.
The bill is expected to pass the U.S. House, and President Trump has recently indicated he would support the bill, even though he has repeatedly tried to zero out the Land and Water Conservation Fund in his budget proposals.
“We’re thrilled that the Great American Outdoors Act is now one step closer to becoming law,” said John Sullivan, Chair of the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “Montana’s sportsmen and women have a special appreciation of LWCF’s importance to public access and hunting and angling opportunity, and we welcome the overdue support for our public land management agencies. Sen. Tester and other conservation champions in the Senate answered the call of hunters and anglers to support our public lands, and we hope members of the House of Representatives follow suit.”
The Great American Outdoors Act would guarantee that the Land and Water Conservation Fund finally receives its full funding every year. Passed in 1964, it was supposed to receive $900 million annually in offshore oil royalties to be used to provide grants for creating city parks, recreation areas and public lands.
But that didn’t happen because Congress never appropriated the full amount. Often, LCWF received less than $300 million while Congress siphoned the rest of the money off to other programs.
In addition to underfunding the LWCF, Congress barely managed to reauthorize the fund as it was sunsetting 2015 but then allowed it to expire in 2016. It was finally revived and made permanent last year as part of the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act, a massive public lands package that also received bipartisan support but failed to fully fund the LWCF.
But Sen. Jon Tester, one of the 59 cosponsors of the Great American Outdoors Act, said in a Wednesday press conference that the Senate finally made it happen, partly because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnnell shifted his position on the LWCF and was wiling to bring the bill to a vote.
“I never ever thought that I would ever say those words: it finally fully and permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” Tester said. “This bill passed 73-25 – that’s a pretty healthy margin in the U.S. Senate. I think the biggest change that’s happened between 10 years ago and today was the leadership, particularly Sen. McConnell said we should get this done. That makes all the difference. I hate to say that one person has that much effect on the U.S. Senate.”
The LWCF has played a significant role in Montana over its 50-plus years with a total investment of $600 billion. Between 2005 and 2015, state organizations received more than $237 million to create public land access and preserve working forests and clean water.
The LWCF allowed local governments to buy Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel and turn them into open lands that Missoulians treasure. The fund played a significant role in the Montana Legacy Project, which bought Plum Creek Timber land to consolidate the national forest lands of the Swan Valley. More recently, the fund is being used to turn former Plum Creek land north of Potomac, now owned by The Nature Conservancy, over to the Bureau of Land Management.
“Securing new public lands like the recent purchase of 13,000 acres in the Lower Blackfoot River corridor is a prime example of how valuable LWCF is to outdoor users,” said Adam Shaw, President of Hellgate Hunters and Anglers. “Whether it’s one of the hundreds of fishing access sites, or community parks, trails, and ballfields that have been funded by LWCF dollars, securing full and dedicated funding will solidify future investments in our public lands and give our outdoor recreation economy a needed boost.”
The Great American Outdoors Act also creates the National Parks and Public Lands Legacy Fund, setting aside about $2 billion a year in other energy revenue over the next five years to pay for long overdue maintenance in national forests, national parks and other federal lands.
The National Park Service alone has a backlog of more than $12 billion in deferred maintenance, said Phil Francis, Chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.
“This act will address the crippling $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog at our national parks, a step that is critical to the continued protection and preservation of our treasured natural and cultural resources. With over 40,000 years of collective experience working in national parks, we know what a difference this funding can make on the ground,” Francis said in a statement.
The funding is not a new idea; it’s found its way into previous bills that never got the same traction. Some say the bill wouldn’t have gotten that traction and McConnell’s and Trump’s support if it weren’t an election year and if Republicans weren’t worried about losing their majority in the Senate.
The bill’s main sponsor, Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., is up for reelection and is facing a tough race, as is Montana’s Sen. Steve Daines. Daines will face Gov. Steve Bullock in Montana’s U.S. Senate race. Both Daines and Gardner met with Trump in February to ask for his support on the bill, after which Trump tweeted his approval.
Montana conservationists from many organizations have long lobbied both Daines and Tester on the issues of LWCF and the suffering maintenance backlog on federal lands. By Wednesday, Daines had received support from 11 conservation, sportsmen and public lands advocate groups across Montana, including The Nature Conservancy, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Montana Wildlife Federation, and Montana Trout Unlimited.
“Today, we make history in the United States Senate. Today, we will vote on one of the most important conservation bills not in years, but in decades. Today, we get one step closer to protecting our outdoor heritage for our children, and grandchildren, for future generations of Montanans and for all Americans,” Daines said on the Senate floor before the vote.
Gov. Bullock said he was pleased to see the Senate finally come together to pass such important legislation, but said it happens too infrequently.
“Call me crazy, but I believe it shouldn’t take Congress this long to follow through on its commitments to the American people. Our political system has been trapped in gridlock caused by party leaders and special interests. While I also applaud Steve Daines efforts in helping get this across the finish line, Montanans deserve leadership that stands up for public lands and the best interests of the people of our state every day — not just in election years,” Bullock said in a statement.