Montana delegation lauds passage of major conservation bill

Montana’s congressional delegation and conservation groups applauded Thursday’s passage of the Great American Outdoors Act by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate voted 73-25 to pass the bill that fully funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million annually and removes it from the annual appropriation process. 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.

Democrat Sen. Jon Tester and Republican Sen. Steve Daines co-sponsored the legislation, with Daines credited with recent negotiations with President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that pushed the bill through.

The public land issues have found agreement among many lawmakers who often disagree on policy, and Montana’s senators called Wednesday’s vote conservation history.

“I think if there’s one word to summarize this bill it’s ‘stewardship,’” Daines said on a call with Montana media. “It’s being stewards of the maintenance issues addressing our national parks to make sure we’re facing the backlog we’ve been battling for years. And stewardship of our public lands by improving our land management and providing better public access.”

Tester believes the push from conservation groups and other advocates was the reason the bill found success.

“This is truly a grassroots-led victory and we should take note that letters and emails and phone calls do work, they do change minds when they’re loud enough,” he said. “… The reason I became so intimately informed about this program is because people on the ground of all ilks that work so very, very hard to make sure we have this funding for this, the best conservation tool we have at the federal level. I think that continual drumbeat over the years finally broke the dam.”

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.

The national parks portion of the legislation would tap oil and gas revenues from federal lands to pay for the backlogs, many of which are related to buildings and other infrastructure needs. The figure at Glacier and Yellowstone national parks alone is about $700 million, Daines said.

Republican opponents to the bill have expressed a range of opposition, from concerns about expanded federal land ownership to the one-time nature of the national parks’ funding portion. Some Gulf Coast lawmakers have also opposed the bill, believing a greater portion of LWCF should go to states most impacted by off-shore drilling.

Both Tester and Daines pushed back against the federal land expansion criticism, characterizing the acquisitions as typically small and strategic with a focus on accessing often inaccessible public lands.

“I think where this bill has been particularly useful is willing buyer-willing seller in a situation where you have a checkerboard pattern in our national forest which is very, very very common, and being able to block (up) those acreages,” Tester said.

Conservation groups across the state and national also applauded Wednesday’s vote.

The timing of the vote has been a frequent topic of media coverage and highlighted by political groups. Both Daines and Republican Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner face reelection campaigns this year, with speculation that the passage of a major conservation bill could sway voters.

In recent days and weeks the Montana Democratic Party and others have portrayed Daines’ record on conservation issue as checkered, pointing to legislation such as a bill to remove protections for several wilderness study areas, past LWCF votes on authorization and appropriations, support for embattled acting BLM Director William Perry Pendley and his decision not to support the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act being championed by Tester.

Daines’ Democratic opponent Gov. Steve Bullock weighed in Wednesday. While applauding the bill’s passage, he levied a similar line of criticism of the Republican.

“Call me crazy, but I believe it shouldn’t take Congress this long to follow through on its commitments to the American people,” Bullock said in a statement. “Our political system has been trapped in gridlock caused by party leaders and special interests. While I also applaud Steve Daines’ efforts in helping get this across the finish line, Montanans deserve leadership that stands up for public lands and the best interests of the people of our state every day — not just in election years.”

Daines defended his public lands record Wednesday. The senator pointed to legislation protecting the Flathead River, Rocky Mountain Front, East Rosebud Creek and a bill last year that removed an area outside Yellowstone National Park from mineral development and permanently authorized LWCF. He characterized the process necessary to pass legislation as often incremental.

“It’s a lot of sour grapes politics in Montana, these critiques,” Daines said “It’s not about politics for me. Montanans love the outdoors and I came back here to get an outcome, I come back to Washington, D.C., to get a result, and I’m very proud of the conservation legacy I’ve been able to leave behind already during my years in the House and now the U.S. Senate and I think the record speaks for itself.”

The bill now faces a test in the U.S. House where Democrats have the majority. Daines said supportive senators have been working with House leadership to bring the bill forward.

Montana Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte credited Daines’ role in the bill’s passage and indicated Tuesday evening that he would support the bill.

“Our public lands are part of the foundation of our Montana way of life. As someone who raised his kids on our public lands and who successfully championed making LWCF permanent, I support the historic Great American Outdoors Act that’s poised to pass the Senate, and I urge the House to consider it,” Gianforte said in part in a statement.

Gianforte has previously voiced a preference for maintaining the annual appropriations process for LWCF. Spokesman Travis Hall said Wednesday that the congressman has “consistently supported robust” LWCF funding and supports the overall Senate bill.

Hall said Gianforte does not plan to cosponsor the House companion bill due to concerns that it could see amendments he disagrees with, but does support the Senate bill as passed Wednesday.