Daily Inter Lake: Conservation fund closer to permanent status

The Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has provided more than half a billion dollars in federal funding to Montana during the past 50 years, would be permanently reauthorized under a sweeping energy reform bill passed by the U.S. Senate Wednesday.

The Energy Policy Modernization Act passed on an 85-12 vote and now heads to conference committee, where members of the House and Senate will work to hammer out a compromise between the energy bill and a similar bill passed in the House last December.

The upper chamber’s overwhelming approval of the bill was hailed by Montana’s two senators Wednesday as a major victory for the Treasure State, saying it would strengthen Montana’s energy economy while promoting public access to federal lands.

“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,” Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said in a prepared statement after the vote.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund uses royalties from federal offshore drilling leases to fund up to $900 million in conservation, land access and land acquisition projects throughout the country each year.

After failing to reauthorize the program before its expiration last September, Congress later included a three-year extension in its omnibus spending bill, appropriating $450 million to the fund for fiscal year 2016.

The program has provided an estimated $540 million for projects in Montana since it was first authorized in 1964. Land managers in Northwest Montana have lauded the program for supporting a range of recreation and conservation initiatives throughout the region.

Dave Landstrom, the region’s Montana State Parks manager, said last September after the reauthorization failed that the program has benefited “pretty much every public recreation provider in the state.”

Recently, the Land and Water Conservation Fund helped to pay for the massive Haskill Basin land easement outside Whitefish, contributing $7 million through the Forest Legacy Program to secure 3,060 acres in the watershed that supplies the bulk of the city’s municipal water.

The state is currently pursuing another easement north of Columbia Falls. The proposal would leverage another $6.5 million awarded through the program to purchase a 7,150-acre easement in the Trumbull Creek drainage.

The Senate’s energy bill could also provide some financial support for the state’s national parks. A provision creating a maintenance fund for the National Park Service would appropriate $150 million in oil and gas lease royalties each year for high-priority deferred maintenance in the park system.

Glacier National Park has an estimated $179.8 million deferred maintenance bill, which totals about $11.9 billion nationwide.

The bulk of the nearly 800-page bill focuses on a wide range of energy reforms, including provisions that would increase natural-gas exports, limit provisions of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, prioritize research and development of low-emission coal technology and encourage expanded development of wind, solar and geothermal power.

“Montana has unmatched energy potential and there is no better place in the nation for folks who love to hunt, hike and fish,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said in a press release Wednesday. “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.”

Another part of the bill would increase reporting requirements under the Equal Access to Justice Act, which requires the government to pay attorney fees to the prevailing party in a lawsuit. The provision would create a public, online database of all payments made to plaintiffs under the law. Changes to the Equal Access law have been a goal of those that argue the state’s timber industry has been stymied by litigation from environmental groups. The industry has argued it provides an incentive for organizations to block logging projects by filing suit against federal agencies.