Senate to Vote on Historic Conservation Measure

As national parks begin reopening their gates amid public health concerns, many visitors seeking a respite from the urgency of a global pandemic may find their parks beset with crumbling roads or deteriorating buildings — problems that the U.S. Senate is poised to address this week.

Americans emerging from lockdown are eager to explore their public lands, and a bipartisan coalition of senators has announced a conservation initiative that dedicates more than $9.5 billion to conserving and maintaining those public lands while improving national parks.

On June 8, the U.S. Senate held a procedural vote to advance the Great American Outdoors Act, a bipartisan bill that would fund deferred maintenance to help keep up with aging infrastructure while including full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). If approved by the House and Senate, President Donald Trump has pledged to sign it.

Full and permanent funding for LWCF has garnered support from Montana’s entire congressional delegation, which has emphasized the conservation fund’s role in helping spur the outdoor recreation economy, which continues to outpace overall economic growth across the West.

Still, despite wide support for LWCF, it has only received full funding once in its history, and proponents say the move by lawmakers to pass legislation to authorize annual allocations of up to $900 million is a watershed moment for the future of conservation.

Some observers pointed out that election-year political calculus almost certainly played a role in the sudden wave of momentum behind the public lands measures, which are both immensely popular with the public even if they have proven elusive.

According to U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, whose support for the bill has been instrumental in mounting Republican support, the measure packages two bills — the Land and Water Conservation Fund Permanent Funding Act and the Restore our Parks Act, both of which cleared the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee with bipartisan support.

“This is absolutely a historic moment for our country and for conservation,” said Daines, who compared the long and arduous journey toward securing full funding for the popular conservation funding mechanism to climbing Granite Peak, the highest mountain in his home state. “As we stand here today the summit is in view and we are going to get on top of this mountain.”

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, a longtime advocate of public lands and LWCF in particular, touched on the historic nature of the proposal to fully and permanently fund LWCF at $900 million a year, which is the full amount allowed, nearly doubling the $485 million Congress approved for the program this year and allocating 60 times more than what Trump proposed in his budget plan just a few months ago.

“This key vote is decades in the making—the full, permanent funding for LWCF that we’ve fought for over so many years is almost across the finish line,” Tester said. “Passing this bill means not only full funding for a conservation tool that’s been critical to all Montanans who care about our public lands since 1964, but it also tackles the maintenance backlogs in our National Parks and on our public lands that have hurt our recreation economy in recent years. In short, it’s a victory for the generations of Montanans who will recreate on public lands long after we’re gone, and I’m thrilled Senate Republicans had a change of heart on opposing this bill that opened the door for today’s vote.”

First established by Congress in 1964, LWCF is funded by offshore oil and gas royalties rather than taxpayer dollars and provides hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to protect public lands and increase access to outdoor recreation, which sustains an estimated 71,000 Montana jobs and generates more than $7 billion in economic activity statewide every year.

Underscoring the importance of the federal program is the suite of conservation projects that are nearing completion or recently came to fruition in the Flathead Valley, including land acquisitions and grants to state and local entities for everything from conservation easements to municipal parks.

It recently helped complete the next phase of a 13,400-acre conservation easement northwest of Whitefish Lake, providing $2 million for the final piece of the multi-phased Whitefish Lake Watershed Project, which helps protect wildlife, promote timber production, and allow public access for hunting, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, and other outdoor pursuits.

The conservation and recreation community has praised the easement because it protects critical fish and wildlife habitat and provides continued public access for outdoor recreation, while also securing the city of Whitefish’s water supply, 20 percent of which is drawn from Whitefish Lake.

LWCF has also helped pay for local community projects that benefit schools.

In Kalispell, the third-fastest growing “micropolitan” community in the U.S., city-maintained recreation sites and green spaces have reaped $1.3 million in LWCF-generated state assistance grants, which leveraged an estimated $2.7 million in total economic impact. Both Lawrence Park and Lone Pine State Park have been rewarded by LWCF, serving local schools as veritable outdoor learning labs by offering ecology lessons.