Bozeman Daily Chronicle: Daines Talks Conservation, LWCF in Ennis

The sun beat down on the Madison Valley as U.S. Sen. Steve Daines sat smiling in a lawn chair holding a 97-day-old trumpeter swan — one of five that would be released into the restored wetlands of O’Dell Creek.

“They’re magnificent animals,” Daines said, shortly before riding an all-terrain vehicle to a pond where the swan would be released.

The Senate is on recess, so the Republican is back in town. On Tuesday, he went to Ennis and visited the Granger Ranches near O’Dell Creek, the site of a major wetlands restoration project over the last decade.

Releasing swans there marked further efforts to return species to the area. Wildlife officials at the gathering said they’d already seen sandhill cranes and fireflies — among other species — coming back in the O’Dell Creek area.

After posing with swans and letting one go, Daines headed back toward Ennis to speak at a meeting of the High Divide Collaborative, a collection of land trusts, rancher groups, sportsmen’s organizations and government agencies from southwestern Montana and eastern Idaho.

Daines stressed the importance of permanently reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a pot of cash from offshore drilling royalties that has helped bankroll conservation projects and park construction since the mid-1960s.

The fund expires Sept. 30, and Daines is backing two potential ways to make the fund permanent.

“You look at all avenues possible to get to the goal line,” Daines said.

One is S.338, a bill narrowly focused on making LWCF permanent. Montana’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is also a co-sponsor on that bill. Daines initially expressed some doubt that the bill would get through both houses of Congress, but eventually threw his support behind it.

The other option Daines is backing is through the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015, which has been lauded as a bipartisan energy bill. A provision that would make LWCF permanent was included in that bill, which has been passed out of committee and awaits a vote on the Senate floor.

One of the remaining challenges is finding time for the bill to be debated on the Senate floor. Daines said other issues like the controversial Iran deal and budget bills might clog up the Senate’s schedule, but added that he was “cautiously optimistic” that the fund would become permanent.

Kelly Pohl, associate director of the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, said she was grateful to both Daines and Tester for their support of the fund and is still optimistic something will be done before the fund expires in a little more than a month.

“This isn’t atypical for Congress to sort of push things to the last minute,” Pohl said. “There’s still time and what matters most is just getting it done.”

The Senate is back in session after Labor Day, leaving just a few weeks for a bill to clear both houses and get signed into law.