With the help of Sen. Steve Daines, the U.S. Senate has the chance to finally consider full funding for a public land and parks grant program and some funding for overdue national park maintenance.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, of which Daines is a member, passed more than a dozen bills out of committee, but two may be of particular interest to Montanans.
The first would require Congress to allocate $900 million to the Land and Water Conservation Fund every year, the full amount allowed by law. That would provide more matching funds for states and communities that want to build or improve parks or purchase open land or conservation easements.
In February, Congress finally made the LWCF permanent after repeatedly renewing it once it expired in 2014. The money comes out of Atlantic offshore drilling royalties, but over the years Congress has rerouted the money to other projects, leaving the LWCF with meager coffers.
The maximum amount allocated since the fund was created in 1964 was a little more than $300 million. Between 2010 and 2017, Congress authorized less than $1 million per year.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Joe Manchin, R-W.V., and co-sponsored by 13 other senators, including Sens. Daines and Jon Tester, passed the committee on a 13-7 bipartisan vote.
After the vote, Daines, who voted in favor of the bill, told reporters LWCF is a critical program for Montana to protect public lands and protect access.
“In fact, LWCF impacts all 50 states. It’s remarkable to think that LWCF has been the funding mechanism for over 70 percent of the fishing access sites in Montana,” Daines said. “I’ll continue working to get this program fully funded.”
One of those opposed to the LWCF funding, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, proposed an amendment that would have required state legislatures to approve any land purchases made with LWCF money.
Daines was one of a dozen committee members who voted down Lee’s amendment for two reasons.
“Most of these (LWCF) projects are very much bottom-up driven,” Daines said in committee. “Second, our legislature meets only every two years, and often time is of the essence.”
Some of Montana’s conservation groups praised Daines’ vote on Tuesday.
“Today’s bipartisan vote was another positive step toward securing full funding for LWCF,” said Montana Wildlife Federation spokesman Alec Underwood. “We appreciate Senator Daines’ and Senator Tester’s commitment to passing (the LWCF bill), which will help secure future access to our public lands along with numerous other benefits that LWCF provides to Montana’s communities.”
But others, including the Montana Conservation Voters, voiced distrust after Daines’ past comments. MCV deputy director Whitney Tawney continued to ask why Daines didn’t advocate for full funding in his May 16 letter to the committee.
“Although we’re pleased to see Senator Daines is a co-sponsor of this bill, his support rings hollow after he asked his colleagues to shortchange LWCF by hundreds of millions of dollars just a few months ago,” Tawney said in a statement. “Montanans deserve a full time public lands champion who delivers on his promises, not someone who wants credit for getting half the job done.”
In the letter, Daines wrote “As we work towards full, dedicated funding for the program, I encourage you to allocate at least $600 million of LWCF in FY2020.”
On Tuesday, Daines pointed out the Land and Water Conservation Coalition including Trout Unlimited had supported his effort.
“The goal here is full funding. Absolutely,” Daines said. “As we start looking at how we’re going to find a solution to get to the full funding, by taking it to $600 million, it’s nearly a 50% increase from where we were in 2017 and ’18. As we continue to move the needle in the right direction, we’re going to have to find a way to get the House and the Senate to agree. If we can’t get the full funding, the backup measure is to continue to push to get significant increases.”
The Energy and Natural Resources Committee also passed on a 15-5 vote the Restore Our Parks Act, sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman and co-sponsored more than 40 other senators. The popular bill would create the National Park Service Legacy Restoration Fund that would receive 50 percent of all payments for energy development on federal land for the next five years, not to exceed $1.3 billion in any year.
The National Park Service has a maintenance backlog that would require $11.9 billion to correct. In Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, about $700 million is needed to complete needed repairs and restoration.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said the Restore Our Parks Act could be the single most important bill in a half-century for the 419 units of the National Park system, because it would cut the maintenance backlog in half within five years.
Daines said that Americans should think of deferred maintenance as debt.
“It is a burden we are not addressing,” Daines said. “We can’t continue to punt on taking care of the deferred maintenance on our nationals parks.”
The House version of the bill passed the House committee on a 36-2 vote and has 330 co-sponsors.
“In a city that’s very polarized right now, it’s nice to see strong bipartisan support for these bills,” Daines said. “It takes public lands to bring a divided government together.”
However, Sens. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., urged the committee to follow the lead of the U.S. House and amend the bill to allow other agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service, to access the money.
Stabenow, who is a ranking member of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said that committee has struggled with how to deal with the $5.2 billion in deferred Forest Service maintenance with no funding to support the work.