Senate passage of $2.8B conservation plan praised in Montana

The passage of the Great American Outdoors Act in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday sparked praise statewide, with Montana’s two U.S. senators saying it was an example of Washington at its bipartisan best.

The bill would spend about $900 million a year — double current spending — on the Land and, Water, Conservation Fund (LWCF), and make it a permanent fund. It would also spend another $1.9 billion per year on improvements at national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and rangelands, the Associated Press reported.

If passed and signed by the president, it would reportedly be the most significant conservation legislation enacted in nearly half a century. 

“We made conservation history in the United State Senate,” Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said in a telephone news conference with reporters minutes before Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., did the same.

“This isn’t your ordinary old day in Montana, this is a historic day,” Tester said.

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who, along with Daines, was one of the bill’s chief sponsors, said the bill will create at least 100,000 jobs, while restoring national parks and repairing trails and forest systems.

Daines said he and others met with President Donald Trump in the Roosevelt room of the White House earlier this year to seek his support of the bill. Trump has repeatedly tried to slash spending for the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund in his budget proposals, AP reports.

Daines said he showed the president photos of Falls Creek near Augusta. He said the president told him he would sign the bill if it got as far as his desk.

Trump has tweeted in favor of the lands bill, saying it “will be HISTORIC for our beautiful public lands.”

“It took public land to bring a divided government together,” Daines said.

Tester and Daines spoke about the bipartisan support for the bill.

“I hope this will lift the spirits of Congress, that we achieved this outcome with a strong bipartisan vote and I hope this will lift the spirits of the American people,” Daines said. “We need some wins like this in bringing Congress together and I can’t think of a better way at this moment than with our outdoor way of life.

“This has been a great day in the U.S. Senate because we made conservation history in the United States Senate,” he said.

Tester said outdoor industry brings $7 billion and 71,000 jobs to Montana’s economy annually. He said he has been an advocate for LWCF for nearly 20 years.

He said the bill passed Wednesday would make a “significant and long overdue investment in those special places.”

Tester said the bill would finally, fully and permanently fund the LWCF.

“I never ever thought I would actually ever say those words,” he said, later adding “This victory was not easy and it did not happen overnight.”

Tester said Montana has used the fund over the past 50 years to invest $600 million to increase outdoor opportunities on public land.

Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., the third member of the state’s congressional delegation, said he supports the bill and complimented fellow Republican Daines for getting it passed in the Senate.

“Our public lands are part of the foundation of our Montana way of life,” he said, adding he urges the “House to consider it.”

Daines, now running for re-election against Democrat Gov. Steve Bullock, was asked about criticism of not supporting other conservation issues and if his work on this bill was an effort to get reelected.

“I’d be happy to talk about my long history on not just work on public land, but also achieving outcomes and significant legislative wins,” he said. Daines noted that when he served in the U.S. House of Representatives, he was able to pass what he said was one of the most significant public land bills in Montana.

He said he got work done on other conservation efforts in the state. He said he has been working to improve funding for LWCF since he came to the Senate. He said last year he helped to pass a major public land bill to authorized LWCF.

Daines called the critiques “sour grapes politics.”

“It’s not about politics for me,” he said. “Montanans love the outdoors. I came back here to get an outcome. I come back to Washington, D.C., to get a result. I am very proud of the conservation legacy I am able to leave behind…I think the record speaks for itself.”  

Bullock released a statement Wednesday.

“Though long overdue, I am glad that the Senate finally followed through on permanent, full-funding for the LWCF and addressed the backlog of maintenance for our public lands,” Bullock said.

He thanked Tester, but criticized partisanship in Congress that often leads to gridlock.

“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.”

The Montana Conservation Voters Deputy Director Whitney Tawney called the passage “a huge step forward to fund Montana’s outdoor heritage for the future generations.”

Tawney said it was hoped “this is the beginning of a real trend, not a one-off election year lift.”

David Brooks, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited, applauded the bill clearing the Senate.

“Full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund means more access to our world-class coldwater fisheries,” he said in an email. “It also addresses decades of maintenance backlogs on our public land estate, which are in desperate need of collaborative restoration of our wild fish and their habitats.” 

Western Values Project Director Jayson O’Neill called passing the bill a “no-brainer.”

“It’s encouraging to see newfound conservation ethos from a Senate that has done little to prevent the Trump administration and their corporate allies from decimating our public lands and environmental protections that will have detrimental impacts for generations to come,” he said in an email. “This one act by no means makes up for an administration that has the worst public lands record in history.”

Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, called it a win for everybody.

“The passage of the Great American Outdoors Act is a truly historic conservation victory that will ensure that America’s public lands and treasured landscapes endure for future generations,” O’Mara said. “It will also accelerate our economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis by creating hundreds of thousands of good jobs, while expanding outdoor recreational opportunities for every community in the country.”