September in Montana brings predictable changes to the landscape: birds migrate to seek food further south, larch and aspen begin to turn gold, evenings and mornings become noticeably cooler. Wildlife is preparing for the long winter ahead. This year, September could also bring change for the nation’s most successful conservation and recreation program: the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).
Enacted in 1965, LWCF funds the protection of public lands, public access and recreational opportunities. In its 50-plus year run, LWCF has touched the lives of almost every Montanan. Chances are that the last trail you hiked, or river you floated, or that ball field where you cheered on your nephew’s soccer game, was funded in part by LWCF. Everything from community swimming pools, parks, playgrounds, fishing access sites, trails, hunting access, to wildlife habitat have been protected by LWCF.
If you know any birders, you’re aware of how serious they can be about chasing down the latest addition to their “life list” of bird species. And it is not just avid birdwatchers who love to see wildlife: 49 percent of Montanans spend time exploring public lands to see birds, grizzly bears, elk, and all of our state’s rich wildlife resources.
Bird watching, along with other wildlife viewing, is big business in Montana, and across the nation. In 2016, wildlife watchers infused $76 billion into local economies across the nation, nearly as much as hunting and fishing combined. In addition to buying equipment, they spend money on fuel, food and lodging as they travel to public lands in search of wildlife. Without access to those public lands, this huge section of our outdoor economy would suffer, leaving a gaping hole in Montana families’ pocketbooks.
As part of Montana Audubon’s River Initiative, we fully support The Land and Water Conservation Fund. The LWCF program is intended to provide $900 million a year for public land acquisition, but it has only been fully spent once in its history. Every other year, Congress has diverted LWCF funds to pay for other government spending.
Now, the program is about to expire. Unless Congress permanently reauthorizes and fully funds LWCF by September 30, the program will end for good. This would have a devastating effect on our public lands and outdoor economy: millions of people travel to Montana each year to view wildlife and recreate on public lands. Wouldn’t we want to protect one of our biggest assets, access to these public lands and waters?
Sen. Jon Tester has long championed LWCF, cosponsoring several bills over the years to fully fund and permanently reauthorize the program. Recently, Sen. Steve Daines also joined in support for full funding, and Congressman Greg Gianforte is on record supporting reauthorization of the program. With this kind of bipartisan support, we hope that our leaders can influence their colleagues in Washington, D.C. to fully fund and permanently protect one of America’s most powerful and longstanding conservation programs, the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Larry Berrin, executive director