“Holy Grail” of conservation bills would fund LWCF, Lolo Trails Landmark Project

FORT FIZZLE – Gathered near the banks of Lolo Creek in the warming summer sun, members of the conservation community on Wednesday celebrated news that the Land and Water Conservation Fund is moving closer to full and permanent funding in the U.S. Senate.

If the measure passes, it would help complete the Lolo Trails Landmark Project south of Missoula – an ambitious effort to acquire a block of former timber land prized for its habitat, historic values and promise of public access.

Sen. Steve Daines, one of the bill’s sponsors, said passage of LWCF could be weeks away, marking what he described as a bipartisan conservation victory. The president has pledged to sign it, he added.

“It’s full funding and it will no longer be at the whim of Congress and whether they’ll renew the program each year, or how much they’ll fund it,” Daines said. “This will be one of the most significant conservation wins in decades.”

The crux of the measure lies in the Great American Outdoors Act, which would permanently and fully fund LWCF. It would also establish the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund to support deferred maintenance on federal lands.

“We have a $12 billion maintenance backlog with crumbling infrastructure across our national parks,” Daines said. “This is the marriage of two really important bills. It takes our public lands and conservation to pull both sides of the aisle together.”

The Lolo National Forest and backers of the Lolo Trails Landmark Project requested $4.4 million this fiscal year to acquire 6,000 acres withing the project. A second application seeks an additional $6 million to secure the remaining 8,000 acres – completing a block of public land 14,000 acres in size.

The block sits 14 miles south of Missoula and straddles Lolo Creek and Highway 12. Acquisition would preserve portions of several historic sites, including the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, the Lolo Trail National Historic Landmark, and the Ice Age Floods Geologic Trail.

“The future of the Lolo Trails project and projects that might come afterwords really depend on full and permanent funding for LWCF,” said Catherine Schmidt, a field representative for The Trust for Public Land. “This has long been the Holy Grail for the conservation communities because of the amazing areas it protects for all of us and for future generations.”

Recreation and outdoor tourism account for roughly 21% of the jobs in Missoula County, and it’s one of Montana’s leading industries. Those gathered on Wednesday described the Great American Outdoors Act as much as a jobs and economic package as it was a conservation bill.

Securing public access is key, they said.

“These lands have been part of private timber lands for a really long time and historically, those owners have been really supportive of public access,” said Joel Webster with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

“But in recent times there’s been a lot of uncertainty cast on some of these lands and what their future is, and there’s a real risk that access could be lost. This project here is going to help protect that public access.”

While acquisition would go far in conserving the corridor to ensure public access to several popular locations, including the backside of the Blue Mountain Recreation Area, it would also protect wildlife habitat.

The area is home to a number of threatened or endangered species, including Canada lynx and bull trout. From big game to aquatic wildlife, the area has meaning to those who have supported the project while seeking full and permanent funding for LWCF.

“I’ve been involved with LWCF for about a dozen years for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation working on these lands projects,” said Blake Henning. “A dozen years ago, we never thought we’d get to this point where you had permanent reauthorization and potential full funding coming forward.”

Two years ago, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership teamed with a Missoula mapping company to calculate the number of acres of public land in the West that was inaccessible to public access due to private property.

The tally suggested 9.7 million acres of federal land and 6.3 million acres of state land were “landlocked.”

“The Land and Water Conservation Fund is the most powerful tool for opening these lands to the public, not only on the federal side but on the state side,” said Webster.

While the Great American Outdoors Act would fully fund and permanently authorize LWCF, it would also tap oil and gas revenues on federal lands and waters and apply it to deferred maintenance in national parks.

Trout Unlimited worked with Daines’ office to expand that to include deferred maintenance in the Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Bureau of Indian Education.

“They were very helpful in getting included in that backlog maintenance these other lands,” said Clayton Elliott with Trout Unlimited. “There’s a tremendous amount of backlog maintenance opportunities on those lands and for Trout Unlimited, it’s a critically important component to the restoration work we do that both leverages state and private dollars.