Montana senators push for LWCF, national parks’ funding bill

Montana’s two U.S. Senators were among lawmakers who took to the floor of the U.S. Capitol Tuesday to urge passage of a bill to fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund and to partially fund maintenance backlogs at national parks and other federal lands.

On Monday the Senate voted 80-17 to proceed with consideration of the Great American Outdoors Act. The bill, which has 59 co-sponsors, would fund LWCF at $900 million annually and remove it from the annual appropriation debate which has consistently seen if fund far below that number since enacted in the 1960s. The bill also generates roughly $9.5 billion to finance backlogged maintenance on federal lands, including more than $6 billion toward the more than $12 billion backlog at national parks.

“The Great American Outdoors Act isn’t just about tomorrow, next week or even next year. This is a bipartisan bill about the future of our children and grandchildren, about legacy, about their ability to access our great outdoors and our public lands,” said Republican Sen. Steve Daines.

Daines and Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner have emerged as key Republicans pushing the legislation. The two, who are both seeking reelection, met with President Donald Trump earlier this year and received his pledge to sign the bill into law should it land on his desk. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell followed suit by bringing the bill to the floor.

LWCF uses a portion of offshore oil and gas royalties to fund a variety of conservation and recreation projects across the country. While the program may be most recognized for federal land purchases, state grants go to multiple programs on the local level including municipal parks and infrastructure such as playgrounds and swimming pools.

Montana has seen more than $540 million allocated from the program, funding nearly three quarters of fishing access sites, blocking up checkerboarded parcels and municipal projects.

The national parks portion of the legislation would tap oil and gas revenues from federal lands to pay for the backlogs.

“There’s the balance we need in our nation to continue to develop energy independence and global energy dominance by developing American natural resources at the same time the revenues coming off of there are used for the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” Daines said.

The bill has been a priority for Democratic Sen. Jon Tester as well, who reflected on Monday’s initial vote to debate the legislation.

“It felt good, it felt good because some of us have been fighting this fight to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund in particular for more than a decade,” he said, calling it the most important conservation program in the country.

On the parks’ portion of the bill, Tester scolded the lack of congressional action that led to the backlogs in the first place.

“Even as we’ve seen record numbers of visitors each year, the United States Congress has failed to make parks a priority and even make investments in them. So the Great American Outdoors Act will go a long ways to correcting Congress’s neglect,” he said.

Both Daines and Tester also emphasized the bill as important both as an economic driver and for quality of life.

The bill does have its share of Republican opponents with objections ranging from expansion of federal land ownership to removal of LWCF from the appropriations process.

Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi criticized the fiscal responsibility of the bill given the $2 trillion stimulus recently passed. He said be believes a “one-time” fix on the backlog should be voted down in favor a permanent funding stream generated through fees on foreign tourism visas.

Some Gulf State lawmakers have also opposed the bill on the principle that their states see some of the largest direct impacts from offshore oil and gas drilling.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, in calling for a greater share of funding to be spent along the Gulf, described the bill as “cannibalizing” his state and its high-population and eroding coastlines to send funding to places people visit.

“Why don’t we spend money where people live as opposed to spending money where people only vacation?” he said.

A final vote on the bill could come this week or early next week.