A Silver Lining in the BP Gulf Disaster?

By Beacon Staff

A loosely organized but unified campaign is underway to garner support for a little known federal funding mechanism with the potential to bolster money for recreation, public land acquisition and wildlife habitat restoration in Montana by millions of dollars. And in the wake of the BP oil spill, the program, known as the Land and Water Conservation Fund, stands its best chance in decades of seeing full funding after Sen. Max Baucus inserted such a provision last week into an energy bill increasing federal oversight of offshore drilling.

“All along the way it has been kind of in the background and no one’s really known about it,” said Walt Timmerman, who administers the Land and Water Conservation Fund as the recreation bureau chief for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “People are just now becoming aware of the fact that they need to get behind the program.”

Established in 1965, the LWCF takes money from fees paid by companies drilling offshore for oil and gas, mostly on the outer continental shelf, and allocates it to recreational areas in the form of parks, forest and wildlife areas. The idea behind the program, as first conceived by President Dwight Eisenhower and eventually signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, was that a portion of funds generated by the extraction of one natural resource would be used to help preserve another.

In the Flathead, projects that have received funding through the LWCF stretch back decades, from the Columbia Falls swimming pool, which received $45,000 in the 1960s, to the Lone Pine State Park visitor center west of Kalispell, which received $496,000 in 2005.

“It has touched everyone at one point,” Madeline Pope, director of national outreach for the Trust for Public Land in Bozeman, said. “It can also help build a new bathroom, build a soccer field; it’s everything from state parks down to local parks.”

The fund is divided between federal dollars that go toward agencies for public land purchases, preservation or easements, and state assistance grants, where municipal governments apply for matching dollars on local projects. According to a 2006 analysis, the LWCF has distributed $14.6 billion since its inception, the majority going toward federal land purchases and nearly $4 billion appropriated through state grants. Since the 1960s, Montana has received more than 770 LWCF grants totaling $37.4 million.

But though the authorized spending level of the fund is $900 million annually, its allocation from Congress has traditionally been sporadic. For example, in fiscal year 2008, the U.S. government collected $18 billion from offshore energy production, but allocated only $155 million toward the LWCF, according to the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition.

Timmerman, who oversees the LWCF state assistance grants, said Montana receives $250,000, on average, through the program, ranging as high in recent years as $1.28 million in 2002 to zero dollars from 1996 to 1999. Were the LWCF to consistently receive full funding, he believes the benefit to the state would be substantial.

“We’d be talking probably about $3 or $4 million a year, which would be spectacular for the state of Montana,” Timmerman said.

In recent weeks, the Missoulian published an op-ed in support of the LWCF, along with The New York Times. On July 15, a Billings cycling group rode to the offices of Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester to present them with “Golden Wheel” awards to raise awareness for the LWCF.

The timing is no coincidence. Last year Baucus, along with Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., introduced legislation to permanently provide $900 million annually to the LWCF in a dedicated account protected from the appropriations process. In July, the House Natural Resources Committee passed a complementary bill sponsored by its chairman, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.V., that would do the same.

“So all of a sudden you have legislation on both sides,” Pope said. “Between that and renewed interest from the (Obama) administration, there starts to be a momentum built around the need for this.”

The impetus to increase the LWCF stems from the catastrophic BP oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, which, as of this writing has been tentatively capped, though the spill remains. Advocates for LWCF say the way the gulf spill has reminded Americans of the environmental costs of fossil fuel development could raise awareness and spur popular support for land and water conservation programs. Earlier this month, Land Tawney, the National Wildlife Federation’s senior manager for sportsman leadership, traveled to Washington to lobby Tester and Baucus on behalf of the LWCF.

“I really think that the nation’s eyes are on this right now, there’s some opportunity we need to capitalize on,” said. “We have a tragedy down there – it’s time to really fully fund this and use this program the way it was intended back in the 1960s.”

“You can’t really go to a fishing access site in Montana that doesn’t have a piece of this,” he added.

Democrats in Congress are pushing legislation that would crack down on the oil industry in the wake of the spill, forcing higher royalty payments, enacting more stringent environmental requirements and possibly removing the cap on liability payments should another accident occur. In addition to Rahall’s, three other House committees are considering spill-related measures, which could eventually be combined into one so-called “spill bill.”

In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid announced last week he was abandoning plans for a so-called “comprehensive” energy bill that would have included a controversial cap on greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, Democrats will push a more scaled-down measure aimed at responding to the oil spill and tightening energy efficiency standards – legislation that stands a better chance of passing in the heated political environment of impending midterm elections.

The day after Reid’s announcement, Baucus said he had successfully included his provision fully funding the LWCF in what is now known as the “Energy Bill.”

“My provision is vitally important to the future of Montana’s outdoor heritage and I’m very pleased to hear it will be included in the Energy Bill,” Baucus said in a statement. “I’ll fight like the dickens to make sure this is passed into law.”

Timmerman has watched the LWCF nearly die several times in recent years – including an episode in 2003 when he credits former Sen. Conrad Burns with almost singlehandedly saving the program when the Bush Administration looked to cancel it – so he’s naturally skeptical about the prospect of fully funding it. But he conceded this time might be different.

“There’s no question that if it were to come back in full force and we were to get several million a year, it would be a big help,” Timmerman said. “So maybe something will happen this time.”