U.S. Senate fails to renew land conservation program

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The view toward Big Mountain and Haskill Basin from Whitefish. (Pilot file photo)

Before recessing for the year last week the U.S. Senate failed to reauthorize a conservation and recreation program that has funded project in all 50 states.

The Senate passed a continuing resolution on Dec. 19 that had been expected to fund the government into February. A government shutdown continued into Dec. 26 as negotiations between lawmakers were expect to resume on the federal budget following the Christmas holiday.

The Senate failed to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

However, Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines said he has confirmed with Senate leadership that a vote on a public lands package that includes the LWCF reauthorization will occur within the first few weeks of the new Congress, which convenes on Jan. 3.

In a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Daines lambasted the government body for its inability to reauthorize the fund.

“The reason we’ve been fighting for permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund is because of what happened right here tonight — it’s the uncertainty of this institution,” he said.

“You can’t depend on this institution,” he added.

Daines said the fund provides access to public lands and assists land projects that take years to finalize.

The proposal considered in Congress would commit $425 million to the program this fiscal year. It’s an amount that is similar to recent funding levels, though several Western lawmakers have been calling for the program to be funded at its full level of about $900 million.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund on Sept. 30 expired after Congress failed to reauthorize the program that directed 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.

Montana has received about $597 million in the last five decades from the fund, according to the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition. It has provided funding for a number of local Flathead Valley projects as well protecting critical habitat and providing continued public access for outdoor recreation.

The fund uses zero taxpayer dollars.

Montana Congressman Republican Greg Gianforte on Thursday blasted the lack of progress on the lands package and a border security measure before the end of the year.

“Montanans didn’t send me here to shut down the government. But they also didn’t send me here to let their priorities die in a lame duck session that is every part lame,” Gianforte said. “I stand here still, urging this body to take up a public lands package and secure the border.”

The Montana Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition, which includes a number of conservation and outdoor groups from across the state, issued a statement on Thursday criticizing Congress for not reauthorizing the fund.

“The entire Montana Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition is extremely disappointed in Congress’ failure to secure permanent reauthorization and full, dedicated funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund before the end of the Lame Duck session of Congress,” the statement said. “LWCF expired on Sept. 30, 2018, and the nation loses $2.5 million in funding each day the program is allowed to lay dormant. LWCF must be the first order of business in 2019, and Montanans expect our delegation to provide the strong leadership needed to deliver full, dedicated funding and permanent reauthorization to a program so vital to Montana’s economy and outdoor heritage.”

Dick Dolan, Northern Rockies Division Director of The Trust for Public Land, issued a statement on the fun. TPL has been involved in many conservation projects in Montana including locally.

“I am tremendously disappointed that the Senate dropped the ball on LWCF right at the goal line,” Dolan said. “At the same time, I am thankful for the efforts of Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines, who continue to lead the charge on permanently reauthorizing and fully funding LWCF. I look forward to working with them on their ongoing efforts to secure LWCF for the people of Montana.”

Daines and Democrat Sen. Jon Tester joined several members of the U.S. House and Senate from Washington, D.C. in late November praising the fund while saying it should be permanently reauthorized with full funding before the next Congress is seated in January. However, that failed to happen.

The LWCF played a key role in securing funding for the recently completed 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.

Since its inception in 1964, $18.4 billion has been appropriated through the program to federal land acquisition, state grants and other purposes.

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