Helena Independent Record: Senate permanently reauthorizes Land and Water Conservation Fund

The U.S. Senate passed legislation Wednesday that includes permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The Energy Policy Modernization Act garnered bipartisan support, easily passing on an 85-12 vote. The act includes myriad updates to energy and efficiency standards and regulations from appliances and vehicles to energy production. It also reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Historic Preservation Fund and creates the National Park Service Critical Maintenance and Revitalization Conservation Fund.

LWCF takes a portion of offshore oil and gas royalties and offers matching grants for conservation projects. In Montana, it has funded city parks and sports fields, fishing access sites and larger land acquisitions with conservation and management values.

While reauthorization and funding has support from the conservation community and Montana’s congressional delegation, opponents argue against acquiring federal land using the fund, citing the mounting maintenance backlog among federal land agencies.

Both Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Republican Sen. Steve Daines pushed for passage of the bill, and particularly LWCF.

“Montana has unmatched energy potential and there is no better place in the nation for folks who love to hunt, hike, and fish,” Tester said in an email. “This bill strikes a balance that will protect energy jobs and improve outdoor opportunities for sportsmen, as well as boost Montana’s energy portfolio, invest in our outdoor economy, and increase access to our public lands.”

“As a fifth generation Montanan and avid sportsman, I recognize how valuable our public lands are and the importance of ensuring access for generations to come,” Daines said on the Senate floor. “In Montana and throughout the country, the Land and Water Conservation Fund plays a critical role in achieving the goal of increased access and by helping preserve and protect Montanans’ opportunities to enjoy hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation.

“Today’s passage of the Energy bill will help unleash Montana’s and our country’s energy potential and uphold our country’s commitment to conservation.”

LWCF, while somewhat of a niche issue among Western lawmakers, became a hot button political issue when conservation interests championed reauthorization and dedicated funding as the LWCF was set to expire last year. LWCF ultimately expired for the first time in its 50-year history, but received temporary reprieve with a three-year reauthorization amended to an omnibus spending bill.

Both Tester and Daines voted against the spending bill, but Montana Wildlife Federation Executive Director Dave Chadwick says his organization is satisfied those were not direct votes against LWCF.

“At the time they really reached out and said they wanted to support it but couldn’t because of other parts of the bill. That’s the nature of budget bills,” he said. “I can only speak for MWF, but in talking to other folks in the conservation community, we felt that was reasonable.”

Wednesday’s legislation permanently reauthorizes LWCF, but securing dedicated funding may be an even bigger issue, Chadwick said.

Funding is subject to an annual appropriations process that has rarely funded the program at its maximum level of $900 million. That uncertainty makes planning much more difficult and stymied some potential work when allocations came in lower than expected.

The Senate’s passage now means reconciliation with the House, where it faces scrutiny from some of LWCF’s most vocal opponents. Montana’s lone U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke broke last year with fellow Republican representatives in supporting reauthorization, but finds himself in the minority with his willingness to vote across the aisle on the issue. 

“It’s a little tougher of a climb in the House, there’s not as much bipartisan support there,” Chadwick said.