Conservation Fund Has Helped Many Projects in Montana

Now in its 50th year, LWCF is set to sunset at the end of September

By Tom Kuglin, Independent Record

HELENA – It may be in a city park, access along a river or a favorite hunting spot or the uninterrupted view from a highway, but it is difficult to go anywhere in Lewis and Clark County or anywhere in Montana and not see the effects of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Now in its 50th year, LWCF, which takes a portion of federal royalties from offshore oil drilling and uses them for matching grants for acquisition of wildlife habitat, recreation and access, is set to sunset at the end of September. LWCF has funded more than $400 million in projects in Montana and $15 billion in projects nationwide.

Montana’s congressional delegation has thrown their support behind reauthorizing and funding, which is a positive, but broader political support is still needed, said Mary Hollow, executive director of Prickly Pear Land Trust in Helena.

“LWCF works nationwide, but Montana is a little bit unique in that we get more LWCF than any other state per capita in the nation,” she said. “Our economy benefits in a greater way than probably any other state as well, so it’s safe to say LWCF is very influential.”

The program is authorized up to $900 million, but after appropriations seldom reaches that level. Recent authorization have been between $300 million and $500 million.

In addition to the critical piece of reauthorization, dedicated funding outside of the appropriations process would allow those applying for LWCF some certainty on how much funding will be available, Hollow said.

“Lost in the debate is the need for dedicated LWCF funding,” she told the Independent Record (http://bit.ly/1i6hfNH). “Without dedicated funding, Congress diverts funding to other uses which isn’t true to the intent of the legislation. Dedicated funding would also make it possible to plan — parks, acquisition, fishing access — projects more effectively in advance . which is just good business.”

The Missouri River is known as one of the most important recreational assets in the Helena area. In 2013, the river set a record for angler days at nearly 171,000, supporting five fly shops on the blue-ribbon stretch.

Of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ 335 fishing access sites statewide, 240 were developed with LWCF, said Chief of Operations Paul Sihler.

One of those fishing access sites is at Wolf Creek Bridge on the Missouri, and Sihler, Hollow and Chris Strainer, owner of Crosscurrents in Helena and Craig, met to discuss the role of LWCF in spurring the recreational economy.

“That’s been our bread and butter for half a century providing recreational opportunities,” Sihler said. “If you didn’t have those fishing access sites, what would that fishing and recreational opportunity be like in Montana?”

By pairing the annual 1.3 million angler days with average expenditures, FWP estimates anglers pumped $900 million into Montana’s economy last year, he said.

Hollow pointed out that the relatively small amount of LWCF — usually between $12,000 and $20,000 leveraged for a fishing access site — has major upsides in return on investment.

“If you think about that investment extrapolated out to what the recreation economy here on the Missouri in particular means, then those dollars are invaluable,” she said.

Recreationists may take for granted the contribution LWCF and access has made in a place like the Missouri, he said.

“I think that’s probably the biggest point I can see is business owners and recreationists have no idea where the funding comes from,” he said. “They just assume it’s supposed to be there and don’t know the history or the back end of how these things come about until there’s an issue that’s brought to the forefront.”

As LWCF funding has declined, the heyday for acquisition has also dipped in favor of more grants to local communities for amenities like parks, Sihler said.

As one drives up U.S. Highway 434 from Wolf Creek, the anticipation builds of that first glimpse of the Rocky Mountain Front.

At the southern end of the Front sits the Ingersoll Ranch, the first in the area to sign a conservation easement with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to keep the land in agriculture in perpetuity. As parents grew older and Linda and Ron Ingersoll wanted to take over, they realized the size of the ranch may not support a growing family.

“Ranching and farming a property of our size isn’t really all that profitable to keep several generations of families going,” Linda said. “So that extra funding can help transfer the business from one generation to the other.”

As they transfer shares of the ranch to their son, “that probably wouldn’t be possible without the easement,” she said.

Since the easement in 2006, the agency has secured a total of 77,000 acres along the eastern Front through LWCF and other leveraged funds to maintain wildlife habitat and ranching, said Gary Sullivan, USFWS Realty Division state coordinator.

“We’re really trying to maintain connectivity between public and private land,” he said.

A conservation easement essentially pays a landowner in term for putting restrictions on future development and use of the property, typically geared toward traditional use such as agriculture. Some easements include public access, which can often open up access to adjoining public lands.

Families are often able to take the money from the easement and either maintain a working ranch or use it to expand the property under a tax incentive, Sullivan said.

Reauthorization and funding for LWCF has plenty of support from various conservation and recreation groups as well as the Montana delegation and many state officials, but the small program with big impacts is still in danger of being lost, Hollow said.

Opposition comes largely from a philosophical opposition to government landownership. Opponents also point to billions of dollars of maintenance backlogs on existing lands and infrastructure as higher priorities over acquisition.

Shawn Regan of Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman testified before Congress in April that LWCF should be reformed to address current needs.

“With the total federal estate now at more than 635 million acres, and the extent of the unmet management needs on those lands, spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year through the LWCF to acquire new lands is simply irresponsible,” he said. “Instead, Congress should prioritize the maintenance and care of the land and facilities that federal agencies already own over further land acquisitions.”

Hollow counters that diverting LWCF defies the original intent of the legislation and would do little to address the backlog.

“The maintenance backlogs are an entirely different issue. With LWCF’s intent and size, it isn’t the right source to take money away from doing projects like this,” she said.

Half of the backlog is transportation related for roads and parking lots which needs to come through the Transportation Bill, she said. The backlog is also a product of decreased federal budgets, she added.

An additional reform pushed by some politicians would shift more funding to “stateside” projects, such as those administered by FWP, and away from “federal side” side projects such as those administered by USFWS.

States such as Montana would be hurt by such a proposal, Hollow said, because funds are per capita based. Montana’s immense natural amenities on federal lands would count for less in LWCF in that scenario, costing the state needed funding, she said.

“In the big picture, Montana is changing. Nationwide but certainly in this state, LWCF is the best tool to address conservation needs and demand going forward,” Hollow said.