Interior Department removes roadblocks for public land purchases

The U.S. Department of the Interior has rescinded an order issued in the final months of the Trump administration that critics say undermined the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a centerpiece of legislation that Montana’s senators helped shepherd through Congress last year.

Then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt issued the order in November, requiring private landowners to get approval from their state’s governor and their county government in order to sell land to the Interior Department. The order also constrained all federal land purchases to the current boundaries of national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and conservation areas, and it put the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees more than 245 million acres of public land, last on the priority list for LWCF projects.

Conservation groups said Bernhardt’s order threatened to hamstring federal land acquisitions by effectively handing veto power to state and local officials and putting up other unnecessary roadblocks. On Thursday, acting Interior Secretary Scott de la Vega signed a new order rescinding Bernhardt’s restrictions.

“Interior’s actions today affirm our support for one of America’s most successful and popular conservation programs,” Shannon Estenoz, the department’s principal deputy assistant secretary overseeing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, said in a statement Thursday. “We look forward to further strengthening this successful program to ensure that all communities – from hikers and sportsmen to urban and underserved communities – have access to nature and the great outdoors.”

CONGRESS ESTABLISHED the LWCF in 1965. Instead of taxes, it is funded with royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling. While it was designed to provide up to $900 million per year for conservation projects, Congress rarely allocated that much until last year’s passage of the Great American Outdoors Act.

The landmark conservation bill, which former President Donald Trump signed into law in August, permanently funds the LWFC at $900 million per year. The law provides up to $9.5 billion over the next five years for overdue maintenance of national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and other public lands.

Montana’s Democratic Sen. Jon Tester pushed for more than a decade to fully fund the LWCF, and Republican Sen. Steve Daines last year campaigned on his role in passing the Great American Outdoors Act.

In a statement Thursday, Tester called the Interior Department’s reversal “a victory for Montana’s public lands and for private property owners who know the federal government has no business telling Montanans what to do with their own land.”

Daines’ spokeswoman, Katie Schoettler, said the senator “welcomes and supports the move so long as we continue to rely on local input and follow the letter of the law.”

Montana Conservation Voters, the National Wildlife Federation and other groups also praised the reversal.

TESTER’S OFFICE said he voiced concern about the Trump administration’s LWCF policy in a January meeting with New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Interior Department. A citizen of the Laguna Pueblo, Haaland would be the first Native American to lead the sprawling agency, which wields influence over tribes through policies on health care, trust lands and other matters.

While Tester and a majority of the Senate are expected to confirm Haaland, Daines recently vowed to stymy the process, calling her views “radical” and noting her opposition to the long-disputed Keystone XL oil pipeline, which Biden recently blocked. A group of Indigenous lawmakers in the Montana Legislature have criticized Daines’ opposition to Haaland and urged him to reconsider.