Bozeman Daily Chronicle: Daines throws support behind LWCF permanent reauthorization bill

Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines has thrown his support behind a bill to make a popular conservation fund permanent.

Daines announced late last week that he has signed on as a co-sponsor on a bill to make the Land and Water Conservation Fund permanent, joining Montana’s Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and a cadre of bipartisan sponsors from around the country.

The bill, S. 338, was introduced by Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, in February. It would permanently reauthorize the fund, which Daines said is the main goal.

“I think we stand better chances of permanent reauthorization by getting behind the Burr (bill),” Daines told the Chronicle.

The LWCF takes offshore drilling royalties for conservation and parks projects. It has been around for more than 50 years and has to be reauthorized by Congress every so often.

The program is set to expire at the end of September, so reauthorization has to happen before then.

The reauthorization conversation is a recurring political battle. Making the fund permanent is one way to end those fights, though the appropriation for the fund would still be done on an annual basis.

Daines has been a supporter of making the fund permanent, but this recent announcement is the first time he’s thrown his support behind a specific measure to do just that.

At a roundtable with conservationists and sportsman groups in Bozeman last month, Daines said he supported permanently reauthorizing the fund, but said a bill to do that would need to include reforms to the program to get through both houses.

He indicated then that he had doubts the bill would get enough support to clear both houses. Now, however, he believes that is changing.

“We’re getting more bipartisan support behind the Burr bill,” he said.

The door isn’t shut on reforms, however. The bill has yet to get a full vote of the Senate and there could be amendments offered to change it.

One provision included in the bill maintains the minimum amount of the fund that is set aside for increasing sportsman access. Reform talks have included increasing that minimum, and Daines said that change is likely to be offered in one of the chambers.

“I know the House has some interest in increasing that percentage,” he said.

Another reform idea being thrown around is increasing the state’s role in the program.

Daines didn’t say whether he supported either of those ideas, just that he is focused on permanent reauthorization.

“Right now I’m behind the Burr bill,” he said.

Local environmental groups were happy to see his support for that bill.

“He deserves huge kudos,” said Peter Aengst, a regional director for The Wilderness Society.

Marne Hayes of Business for Montana’s Outdoors, said in a news release that the group is thrilled to hear Daines’ announcement.

“This is a welcomed new direction, and gives us hope that the entire Montana delegation will be unified in pushing LWCF through to reauthorization before the September deadline,” she said.

“I think he’s listening to Montanans,” said Kelly Pohl, associate director of the Gallatin Valley Land Trust. “He understands that LWCF plays a really important role.”

But, Pohl noted that the battle doesn’t end here. The bill needs to get through by Sept. 30, when the LWCF is set to expire, and Pohl would like to see more money injected into the fund.

“We still have a long ways to go,” she said.