Missoula Current: Daines, Tester urge Congress to reauthorize Land and Water Conservation Fund

Montana Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines on Wednesday joined a group of lawmakers at the U.S Capitol to urge Congress to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The fund, established in 1964 to safeguard public lands, water resources and cultural heritage, is set to expire on Sept. 30 without congressional reauthorization.

“Today marks 100 days until the LWCF expires,” Daines said. “It’s time we permanently reauthorize this critical conservation and recreation program for Montana. I support the full and permanent funding of LWCF.”

Several conservation groups launched a $1 million digital ad campaign earlier this month to pressure lawmakers to reauthorize the program amid efforts by some in Washington, D.C., to divert funding elsewhere.

Reauthorizing the program has gained bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate, and efforts are underway to generate momentum in the House before the program sunsets.

“We’ve been in conversations with Rep. (Bob) Bishop about the fact that the Senate has been pretty united in wanting to see this reauthorization made permanent,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington. “We’re looking for what’s the right vehicle and opportunity so the House will take action as well.”

The program is funded using revenues generated by offshore oil and gas drilling and isn’t taxpayer funded, the coalition of lawmakers stressed during their press conference on Wednesday, streamed live over Facebook.

But President Donald Trump’s recent budget proposal for FY 2019 slashes the program by nearly 90 percent. According to The Hill, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke also has proposed paying for the backlog of national park infrastructure projects using the same offshore revenues.

“These are dollars that are used to buy easements to allow people to have their best hunting and fishing,” said Tester. “You don’t need to be a millionaire to go hunting and fishing in Montana, and it’s because of the LWCF. I’ll vote for full funding tomorrow. It’s that important for this country, it’s that important for quality of life, and it’s that important for my kids and grandkids. And by the way, it doesn’t cost any taxpayer dollars.”

Marc Tercek, CEO of The Nature Conservancy, said the program is vital to the outdoor recreation economy that fuels much of the rural West. When the entrance to Grand Teton National Park went on the market, conservation funds were used to keep it in public hands, not private developers.

In Montana, he added, the funds protected the “checkerboard” lands within the boundaries of the national forest to provide access to hunting and fishing. Daines made a similar point.

“LWCF provides access for every single American to these important natural spaces,” said Tercek. “It sustains the integrity of our national parks, national forests, wildlife refuges and state and local parks. It conserves the natural systems that people and wildlife need to thrive and survive.”

Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, said the program generates nearly $900 billion in economic revenue and consumer spending and $65 billion in federal tax revenues, at zero cost to the American taxpayer.

Those funds are leveraged with private sector funds to protect the nation’s treasures, creating what Burr described as a compelling argument for members of Congress.

“I feel like every time we get together with this deadline looming, we’re on a re-education program about what LWCF is,” Burr said. “In part, that’s true, we’re re-educating people in Washington about it because people across this country, from the West Coast to the East Coast, know what good work LWCF is doing.”