LWCF programs vital to health, vitality of many towns

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Earlier this summer the community of Whitefish — along with our partners the Trust for Public Land, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Whitefish Legacy Partners, and F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Company — celebrated the closing of the Haskill Basin Conservation Easement project. We met to celebrate a new trailhead that opens the door to recreational opportunities on over 3,000 acres of working forest lands surrounding Whitefish.

What makes Haskill Basin so special is that is also provides 90 percent of the city of Whitefish’s municipal water supply. For more than 100 years, the city’s agreement to manage, operate, and supply water to our community from Haskill Basin was memorialized on little more than a handshake agreement with the landowner, F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Company. Fortunately, the timing was right for both parties to formalize an agreement, and equally important, we were able to leverage funding from the imperiled Land and Water Conservation Fund.

With the assistance of the Trust for Public Land and Whitefish Legacy Partners, the community of Whitefish successfully passed a 1 percent resort tax increase that helped fund the purchase of the Haskill Basin Conservation Easement and with it came permanent protection of our community water supply, and permanent public access.

In addition to providing future generations of Whitefish residents with safe drinking water, Haskill Basin is home to critical wildlife habitat, is a popular recreational area, and is a working forest that supports over 100 jobs that helps fuel our local economy. These lands will remain as working forests, managed by one of the oldest remaining privately-owned timber management companies in Montana.

In addition to the hard-working Whitefish residents and visitors who pay into the resort tax, the Land and Water Conservation Fund provided vital funding to finish the acquisition of this conservation easement making the Haskill Basin project a reality. The Land and Water Conservation Fund has silently been behind success stories like Haskill Basin across Montana, and small communities like Whitefish are all the better because of the access and investment in public lands supported by LWCF.

However, LWCF is at a crossroads in terms of both funding and permanency. Unless Congress passes Senate Bill 569 or similar legislation, fully funding and permanently reauthorizing LWCF, the program will expire on Sept. 30 and with it the millions of dollars it invests annually into Montana’s economy. From 2004 to 2015 alone LWCF infused more than $240 million into our economy. In total, LWCF has conserved over 230,000 acres of working forests, provided over 800 ball fields, swimming pools, and parks, and funded over 165 fishing access sites across the state.

As mayor of Whitefish, I am keenly aware that LWCF programs are vital for the health and vitality of communities like ours. We depend upon our outdoor and recreational amenities to drive our economy. Without the access to our public lands and waters that LWCF provides, visitors would cease to visit our community, spend money in our shops, eat in our restaurants and sleep in our hotels. As LWCF nears expiration, we are looking to our Montana delegation to fund and preserve Montana’s most successful conservation and recreation program.

Sen. Jon Tester has long been a staunch supporter in both words and votes for LWCF. I am pleased and thankful to see both Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte join Tester in words and action. As the clock ticks down to expiration, we strongly urge our delegation to persuade their colleagues in D.C. to permanently reauthorize and fully fund LWCF before it’s too late. We need our delegation’s leadership now more than ever.

John Muhlfeld is the Mayor of Whitefish.

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