Every presidential budget is preliminary. The numbers are fluid and Congress rarely lines up to support every line item. But as Interior Secretary, and as the first Montanan to serve in a presidential cabinet, Whitefish’s Ryan Zinke is in a precarious position. He has to defend budget cuts that directly impact our backyard.
And defend he did. In a series of committee meetings last week, which included questioning from Montana Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, Zinke parried questions about the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), the National Park Service budget and the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program.
It wasn’t an easy task.
Tester was pointed in his criticism of the proposed LWCF cuts, which essentially guts a program that draws revenue from offshore drilling to support public land access and projects in the nation’s parks, wildlife refuges, forests and trails.
Zinke said he supported the program, just as he did as a congressman, and called the lack of funding an “appropriations problem.”
To which Tester interjected: “You are Secretary of Interior. This is an important position. It’s one of the reasons I supported you in this position — because of your support for LWCF. But we can’t sit here and make excuses. Either we’re for it, or we ain’t.”
Daines, in a separate hearing, also raised concerns about funding, asking Zinke to work “with me on a path forward” for LWCF.
The senators’ tones and verbiage during their respective committee meetings reflected their political parties —Tester more pointed and Daines mixing praise with questions — but both men clearly know what’s at stake for Montana if the president’s proposed budget is passed as is. The stakes are even higher in Northwest Montana.
If the PILT program is cut by about 12 percent, as is proposed, it will drain substantial funds from coffers in Flathead, Lincoln, Sanders, Lake and Glacier counties. The money is funneled to counties across the country where large swaths of land held by the federal government cannot be taxed. It is then spent on everything from infrastructure to first responders.
During questioning from Tester, Zinke pointed out that under the previous administration PILT was unfunded.
That was true initially, and it tells you something about these preliminary budget proposals. But after some haggling, the Department of Interior approved the largest payment in the PILT program’s history and, last year, distributed more than $451 million to 1,900 counties.
Flathead County, home to 2.44 million acres of federal land, alone received $2.5 million. What’s at stake under the proposed budget? Hundreds of thousands of dollars for our county.
Daines also drilled down into the deep cuts proposed in the National Park Service operations budget.
“The president’s budget request proposes cuts of $956,000 to Glacier and $2.5 million to Yellowstone in the operations account,” Daines said. “I’m concerned as we see these national parks receiving record numbers of visitation, how will these cuts in operations funding help ensure the public has the sort of experience we all expect from what is called ‘America’s best idea?’”
Zinke said the 12 percent reduction would ensure the department funds its core responsibilities, adding that the Park Service is too heavy on middle and upper management. If passed, this means reductions in staffing at Montana’s national parks, which are already understaffed to handle increasing crowds.
There’s a lot at stake in this budget. Our senators know it. They’re in the position to stop it from disproportionately hurting Montana. And it appears they will.