For more than a half-century, perhaps no program has been more instrumental in protecting and conserving the nation’s public lands than the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has funded more than 41,000 conservation and lands projects at the federal, state and local levels, furnishing protections on roughly 2.3 million acres of forests while enjoying bipartisan support from lawmakers.
Between 2005 and 2014, Montana received $240.3 million in investments from LWCF funds, which contributed to the purchase of more than 800 recreational sites across Montana, including city parks, trails, and ball fields.
But the clock is winding down to the Sept. 30 expiration date on the fund, established by Congress in 1964 to conserve open spaces, fish and wildlife habitat and cultural, historic and recreation sites. With the end of the fiscal year looming, conservation and land advocates, business owners, and a bipartisan mix of lawmakers are sounding a rally cry to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).
Underscoring the importance of the federal program is the suite of conservation projects that are nearing completion or recently came to fruition in the Flathead Valley, including land acquisitions and grants to state and local entities for everything from conservation easements to municipal parks.
Funding from LWCF helped complete the next phase of a 13,400-acre conservation easement northwest of Whitefish Lake, providing $2 million for the final piece of the multi-phased Whitefish Lake Watershed Project, which helps protect wildlife, promote timber production, and allow public access for hunting, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, and other outdoor pursuits.
The conservation and recreation community has praised the easement because it protects critical fish and wildlife habitat and provides continued public access for outdoor recreation, while also securing the city of Whitefish’s water supply, 20 percent of which is drawn from Whitefish Lake.
Meanwhile, Montana’s entire congressional delegation has been calling for permanent reauthorization of LWCF and introduced bills in both the House and Senate to push funding across the finish line this month.
“LWCF is so important to Montana, and the benefits extend from coast to coast, all across our nation. It costs the taxpayers nothing,” U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, said. “We have the bipartisan support in Congress to save this critical program. Let’s get this done.”
The source of funding for LWCF has been a major point of emphasis for proponents, who stress that it is not taxpayer funded — a common misconception — but rather uses a portion of royalties from offshore oil development. The law allows funding of up to $900 million, but that has only happened twice in the fund’s 54-year history. Congress funded LWCF at $425 million this fiscal year, but the program will expire Sept. 30 unless lawmakers take action.
On the economic side of the equation, business owners and politicians are pointing to the critical role outdoor recreation and public land access play in driving local economies in the Rocky Mountain west.
“In Montana, our public lands drive our growing $7 billion outdoor economy,” U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, said. “The Land and Water Conservation Fund is the best tool we have to increase public access to public lands. Today is a win for Montanans who love the outdoors and I will keep fighting and defend our way of life against those who want to change LWCF and sell off our public lands to the highest bidders.”
A new poll of 822 owners and managers of outdoor businesses in Montana, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico found that eight in 10 businesses support reauthorizing the conservation program, speakers in a teleconference said Sept. 6.
“We know that protected public lands are a big reason people come to live and work in Montana, and that the outdoors either directly or indirectly shapes their businesses,” Marne Hayes, executive director of Business for Montana’s Outdoors, said. “In the West, we have our outdoors as an economic advantage over other regions in attracting talent, and this poll shows that business owners count on programs like LWCF to keep those assets protected.”
Key findings of the poll include: 82 percent of those surveyed believe Congress should reauthorize the fund, including 79 percent of Montanans surveyed; nearly eight in 10 business owners believe LWCF helps their state’s economy; 73 percent of business owners believe public lands and the increased access provided by LWCF and similar programs help their business recruit and retain high-level employees.
The poll by Strategies 360 was commissioned by Business for Montana’s Outdoors, Colorado Outdoor Business Alliance, Get Outdoors Nevada, and Partnership for Responsible Business. A minimum of 200 interviews were completed in each state between July 26 and Aug. 7, both by telephone and online.
Meanwhile, the Center for Western Priorities released a new report last month that identified and examined public land projects proposed by federal agencies from 2014 to 2017.
The analysis found that 20 projects were completed during this four-year-period in Montana, conserving at least 90,100 acres. The completed projects helped conserve swaths of land in Glacier National Park, the Lewis and Clark National Forest, Flathead National Forest, Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, and more, according to the report. Additionally, a project in the Lolo Flathead National Forest is in the process of being completed.
At least 16 LWCF projects in Montana covering 16,800 acres were proposed by federal agencies and but are not yet completed.
“These projects are on the line and may be lost to development if Congress fails to reauthorize and fully fund LWCF,” according to the report.