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Government & Politics

Half Dozen Montana Projects Slated For LWCF Dollars After Bumpy Start

A trail along an old Jeep road lined by a log fence winds behind houses with a mountain range in the backdrop.
Rachel Cramer
/
Yellowstone Public Radio
People walk on the trails at Peets Hill/Burke Park in Bozeman, Apr. 18, 2020. The City of Bozeman received a matching grant through the Land and Water Conservation Fund in 1993 to buy the land.

The Great American Outdoors Act was hailed as once in a generation legislation by conservation and outdoor recreation groups when it passed into law this August. But three months later, many of those same groups say the U.S. Department of Interior is trying to rewrite the law and undermine a popular federal program.

In early Nov., the U.S. Department of Interior missed a mandatory deadline to recommend projects to Congress to receive money through the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

LWCF uses royalties from offshore oil and gas leases to help pay for conservation and outdoor recreation projects across the U.S. Here in Montana that includes buying land for state parks, putting conservation easements on historic ranches and building three quarters of the state’s fishing access sites.

Montana Democratic Senator Jon Tester has long advocated for full, permanent funding for LWCF.

“This fund works and it works very, very well. But I think [Interior] Secretary [David] Bernhardt is bent on screwing it up, and he’s done his best by missing the deadline on the projects, and when he did give us the projects a week late, it was very, very weak on specifics,” Tester said.

Tester and Montana’s Republican Senator Steve Daines are members of a Senate subcommittee that drafted its own list of LWCF projects, including seven in Montana. But that same week, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt added new requirements for LWCF projects.

Tester says the new requirement for county or state government to sign off on plans from private landowners to sell their land into the public trust is “absolutely unbelievable.”

The order also prioritizes funding for land purchases with the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service over other agencies like the Bureau of Land Management unless the BLM purchase establishes public access to isolated federal property.

Daines is one of the Senators credited with bringing President Trump on board for the Great American Outdoors Act.

“Fortunately, Congress maintains oversight and has included a LWCF project list that better meets the spirit and intent of the Great American Outdoors Act, and maintains Montana priorities in the Interior [appropriations] bill,” Daines said in an email response to YPR about the Secretary’s order. “Unfortunately in developing the new LWCF framework, DOI did not rely on the transparency, collaboration, and partnerships that have made this critical conservation program so successful for decades. This must be corrected going forward to ensure Montana voices are heard.”

Secretary Bernhardt’s order impacts projects until Congress passes legislation or a new Interior Secretary rescinds the order.

“Without that support and implementation from the DOI side, it was certainly a gut punch to a lot of us here in Montana that have put so much time and energy getting those projects moved up the chain,” Becky Edwards said.

Edwards heads up the Montana LWCF Coalition, which is made up of groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Montana Wildlife Federation, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and the Wilderness Society.

The coalition has spent the last decade pushing for legislation that would protect the federal program from disappearing and ensure it receives full funding: $900 million every year.

The passage of the Dingell Act last year and the Great American Outdoors Act in August checked off both of those boxes.

“I always like to say that when you leave your house, no matter where you’re at in Montana, you are touched by LWCF, and that’s simply because the program is so very broad,” Edwards said.

She said the coalition’s work is not over.

“We are staying together so that we can make sure that the Great American Outdoors Act is implemented appropriately.”

One of the projects expected to receive LWCF funding but currently in limbo is in the Blackfoot Watershed near Missoula. It was left off Secretary Berhardt’s list. But the Senate bill includes more than $3 million for the BLM to purchase roughly 4,500 acres from The Nature Conservancy. The goal: protect tributaries, wildlife habitat and public access.

Chris Bryant with The Nature Conservancy said this land sale is part of two decades of work putting old timber company land into the public trust.

“As a conservation organization, we’re not looking to simply sell the land quickly. We’re looking to find the right long term ownership for it,” Bryant said.

Bryant said he’s not that worried about the Interior Secretary’s recent order on LWCF, saying it’s not up to agencies to reinterpret laws that are passed by Congress.

“But it’s worrisome when what we expect is going to happen or what we’re counting on, what the community has been lobbying for, when that gets held up for one reason or another, you always kind of wonder if it’s going to get fixed and when.”

Bryant said TNC is in a position where, if it needs to, can wait another year for LWCF dollars to come through, but other projects may not have that flexibility.

Along with the Blackfoot Watershed project, the Senate subcommittee’s bill includes $10 million for the BLM to buy land to improve public access and protect more than 11,000 acres along the Lower Musselshell River. The BLM is working in partnership with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation on the project.

Two million dollars will go to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to buy land and pay for conservation easements to expand public access, support the economic viability of ranching communities and help federally listed endangered and threatened species within the Rocky Mountain Front, Blackfoot Valley and Swan Valley Conservation Areas.

Six million dollars are slated for the Kootenai Forestlands Conservation Project, which is a collaboration between the Forest Service and the Trust for Public Land. The 27,000 acre project near Libby involves a Forest Legacy Program easement to protect habitat for 43 federally listed threatened and endangered species and maintain sustainable timber operations.

The Forest Service will also use $6 million from LWCF to buy 7,500 acres near Missoula for the Lolo Trails project, again working with the Trust for Public Land.

Four million dollars are slated for the Bad Rock Canyon Conservation Project along the Flathead River near Columbia Falls. The project aims to provide hunting opportunities for youth and people with disabilities and add a trail for hikers, bikers, birdwatchers.

The Senate’s subcommittee bill included $8 million for the Miller Lake Valley project near Anaconda to open up recreation opportunities on 10,000 acres. The ranger for the Pintler District in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest told YPR the project with a private landowner fell through several months ago.

The Senate subcommittee’s LWCF’s priorities list was wrapped into an omnibus spending package, which Congressional lawmakers must pass by Dec. 11 to avoid a government shutdown.