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.
Over the past decade-and-a-half, Montana alone received more than $245 million in investments from LWCF funds, which contributed to the purchase of more than 800 recreational sites and community projects across Montana, including city parks, trails, school playgrounds, soccer fields, swimming pools, bike paths, and ball fields.
To build on that legacy, the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last month voted to advance legislation to provide full, dedicated funding for LWCF, approving the Land and Water Conservation Fund Permanent Funding Act, which Sens. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) and Cory Gardner (R-Colorado) introduced. Meanwhile, the House Natural Resources Committee approved a bipartisan House companion bill in June.
Full and permanent funding for LWCF has garnered support from Montana’s entire congressional delegation, which has emphasized the conservation fund’s role in helping spur the outdoor recreation economy, which continues to outpace overall economic growth across the West.
Still, despite wide support for LWCF, it has only received full funding once in its history, and proponents are pushing lawmakers to pass legislation to authorize annual allocations of up to $900 million — the full amount allowed.
First established by Congress in 1965, LWCF is funded by offshore oil and gas royalties rather than taxpayer dollars and provides hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to protect public lands and increase access to outdoor recreation, which sustains an estimated 71,000 Montana jobs and generates more than $7 billion in economic activity statewide every year.
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.
It recently 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.
LWCF has also helped pay for local community projects that benefit schools.
In Kalispell, the third-fastest growing “micropolitan” community in the U.S., city-maintained recreation sites and green spaces have reaped $1.3 million in LWCF-generated state assistance grants, which leveraged an estimated $2.7 million in total economic impact. Both Lawrence Park and Lone Pine State Park have been rewarded by LWCF, serving local schools as veritable outdoor learning labs by offering ecology lessons.
“Our parks provide our teachers and students the opportunity to break down classroom walls to explore, play and create in our amazing outdoors,” Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Mark Flatau, a supporter of LWCF, said.
Both of Montana’s U.S. Sens. Steve Daines, a Republican, and Democrat Jon Tester are calling for permanent reauthorization of LWCF, while conservation and sportsmen groups say failure to fully fund could derail critical projects as development pressures loom.
Last spring, the federal government approved permanent reauthorization of LWCF, and proponents are now urging lawmakers to take the final step to ensure the full $900 million is permanently marked for LWCF projects and is actually placed in the fund each year.
“Our LWCF mandatory full funding bill took a critical leap forward today and is now one step closer to the President’s desk,” Tester said after the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee’s approval. “But for it to get there, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will need to allow the full Senate to vote on it — if he did, it would pass overwhelmingly. In the weeks ahead I’ll continue my push to get this across the finish line, as well as continue working to address our deferred maintenance backlog, to preserve and protect the public lands that make our state the Last Best Place.”
Daines was among Republicans on the committee to vote for the bill, which passed on a 13-7 vote, and spearheaded earlier efforts to finance LWCF at up to $465 million.
Still, Daines said authorizing the funding mechanism so that it receives the full amount is a priority, particularly as an end-of-the-year deadline to bring the legislation to a full Senate vote draws closer.
“We want to get the full funding amount,” Daines said. “I remain committed and will not stop fighting until we get full funding.”