Bill could fully fund conservation fund

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Legislation has been introduced in Congress to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund Permanent Funding Act would create dedicated funding for the conservation fund at $900 million available annually. Since it was established in 1965, LWCF has only been fully funded twice. The bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate last week.

A major public lands bill was signed into law last month by President Trump including the permanent reauthorization of LWCF. However, that package did not fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Democrat U.S. Sen. Jon Tester slammed Trump for proposing a 98 percent cut to LWCF funding in his fiscal year 2020 budget the day before signing the landmark public lands package into law that included permanent authorization for the program.

“LWCF has contributed more than half a billion dollars to Montana’s thriving outdoor economy, keeping our public lands pristine for hunters, anglers, hikers, and more,” Tester said in a release. “But the fight to fund the program every year puts our public lands in jeopardy. We’ve got to get rid of this harmful uncertainty for good, and it’s past time for my Senate colleagues to put their money where their mouth is and urge Leader McConnell to fund it permanently after years of delays so our kids and grandkids can enjoy the Last Best Place for generations to come.”

Along with Tester, Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines is one of the co-sponsors of the funding bill.

“The historic bipartisan lands package which permanently maintained our commitment to LWCF was a big win for Montana, but now we must come together again to ensure the program is fully funded,” Daines said in a release. “Expanding access to public lands and preserving the rich outdoor heritage of Montana is one of my highest priorities in the U.S. Senate. I will not stop fighting until we get full funding of LWCF.”

Several groups supporting public lands and conservation have expressed support for the funding bill.

“For much too long, Congress has shortchanged the bipartisan Land and Water Conservation Fund, depriving Montanans of the funding we need to access and enjoy our public lands and waters, to improve the health of our forests and rivers, and to sustain our $7 billion outdoor recreation economy and the 70,000 jobs that it generates for Montanans,” said Ben Gabriel, executive director of the Montana Wilderness Association.

The LWCF expired last year after Congress failed to reauthorize the program that directs a portion of federal revenues from offshore oil and gas leasing to fund grants that went to local, state and federal projects that benefit conservation and outdoor recreation.

The conservation fund has invested more than $540 million to support Montana’s $7.1 billion outdoor recreation economy.

“Access to outdoor recreation, made possible by LWCF funds, is essential to Montana’s economy,” said Mark Haggerty of Headwaters Economics. “Our outdoor heritage attracts millions of outside dollars, keeps Montana businesses from leaving, and is a powerful recruitment tool for new talent.”

The LWCF played a key role in securing funding for the Whitefish Lake Watershed Project, a 13,400-acre conservation easement northwest of Whitefish Lake. The Haskill Basin conservation easement finalized in 2016 also relied on LWCF funding to ultimately preserve about 3,000 acres of forestland north of town including providing protection for the city of Whitefish’s source for drinking water. The fund also provided funding for the Trumbull Creek conservation easement for about 7,000 acres north of Columbia Falls.

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