Opinion

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Closing Range

What a Surprise

Big greens chasing bigger green

Over the past few weeks, there have been a relatively large number of opinion pieces about the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Spontaneous? Coincidence? Heck no, twice – there’s active legislation in the U.S. Senate, so of course there’s an active promotional campaign by special-interest organizations that stand to grab a permanent windfall if the bill passes.

A related Montana manifestation of this environmental business-as-usual was the release of a “report,” press releases seeking news coverage, and news stories – about “funding needs for conservation.” The paper came from Headwaters Economics, a group I’ve heard of, and whose work I’ve previously picked apart.

Overall, Headwaters claims conservation needs in Montana are unmet, therefore both federal and state funding should be increased. Not only should there be more LWCF dough, but Montana should create new “programs to creatively invest in conservation,” in short, money from bonds, the lottery, oil/gas/sales taxes and other “dedicated funding sources.”

I could pick this windfall-seeking narrative (there’s no author listed anywhere) apart too, but will focus just on the first factoid presented, concerning “working land conservation,” claiming a “$12.4 million funding gap.” Why? “In 2019, Montana landowners, in partnership with nonprofit land trusts, submitted more than $33.6 million in proposals for federal and state [taxpayer funding for what are actually conservation easements], but only $21.2 million were funded,” leaving a “gap.”

But this gap really isn’t between needs and funding, even though the report mentions “needs” 21 times in 12 pages. Rather, this gap lies between “ask” and “get.” And it’s a big gap, something that everyone, not just economists, should expect when “free money” or “free stuff” is involved. Didn’t all of us always ask Santa for more than we got? Sure? And, did we ever truly need what we asked for? Some, but most, we just wanted.

Further, in the universe of federal funding “gaps,” the report’s “gap” doesn’t even rank. Usually, the difference between ask and get is gigantic. Remember when Whitefish got that $3.5 million in “TIGER” grant money for downtown, in 2010 or so? Nationwide, only about 3 percent (a total of 51) out of 1,400 grant requests for $1.5 billion succeeded, in Whitefish’s case mostly thanks to influence from then-U.S. Sen. Max Baucus. The total ask? $57 billion, leaving a “gap” of $55.5 billion!

Headwaters tots up other “gaps” or “unmet funding needs” totaling $60 million yearly in four categories. To his credit, however, Phil Drake of the Great Falls Tribune pried from Headwaters an admission that, (as Drake wrote) “some of those funds are overlapping and it was fair to say the [final, real] figure was in the tens of millions.”

So, who really pushed Headwaters to do this report? Supposedly, the Montana Outdoor Heritage Project (MOHP), which on its anonymously registered and nice-looking website (created only last fall) calls itself a “collaboration of Montana citizens.” There’s a photospread of about 15 of these citizen volunteers on MOHP’s “about” page, plus MOHP is also on Facebook, with 571 followers. But there’s no board of directors listing, no executive director, no mail or office address, no phone.

Contact person? One: Karrie Kahle, whom MOHP calls a “grassroots organizer.” She previously led “outreach” for the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, a group formed specifically to block (successfully) the Lucky Minerals gold mining prospect south of Livingston.

But in terms of grassroots, every article in Montana’s “mainstream” outlets about MOHP’s report quoted only the same two professional people: Dave Chadwick, who runs the Montana Wildlife Federation, and Kelly Pohl of Headwaters. Interestingly and probably not coincidentally, Pohl worked for years at the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, which in turn calls Headwaters “our partner,” as well as with the Nature Conservancy, another land trust.

So, is MOHP real grassroots, or an Astroturf front? Turns out that National Public Radio did report back in March that MOHP “includes Montana State Parks Foundation, Business for Montana’s Outdoors and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, as well as the Montana Wilderness Association and The Nature Conservancy.” And, when I clicked into MOHP’s Voices page, I found a list of 30 endorsing organizations, almost all environmental groups. Big greens chasing bigger green? What a surprise.