Even though there’s no off-shore drilling within hundreds of miles of Montana’s borders, the Treasure State has benefited from royalties paid by energy firms over the past four decades, with parks, open space and public lands all enhanced as a result.

At a rally Monday at Memorial Park, supporters of many forms of outdoor recreation, from youth soccer to hunting, fishing and mountain biking, called on Congress to fully support the Land and Water Conservation Fund in the upcoming budget, and to make permanent the fund’s annual appropriation from off-shore drilling royalties, among other sources.

Created in 1965, the fund is authorized to offer up to $900 million annually in matching grants to states and local governments for the development of outdoor recreation areas and facilities.

In the Helena area, that’s meant money over the years for everything from Memorial Park to the Wakina Sky Trail, Spring Meadow Lake and the East Helena Pool.

But while the fund is authorized to parcel out up to $900 million in royalty money each year, Congress often provides far less. Just $38 million is available for grants this year, although the fund’s website says the administration wants to fully support the fund at $900 million by 2014.

It’s an ambitious goal — the fund has averaged $100 million in grants over its 45-year lifetime, with a high of $369 million in 1979. For four years in the late 1990s, the fund made no grants at all.

“Funding has been low and unpredictable. It’s a promise to the American people that hasn’t always been kept,” said Andy Baur, director of the Prickly Pear Land Trust.

Since its inception in 1965, the fund has made 772 grants to Montana localities, totaling $37.4 million. Lewis and Clark County has benefited from 31 grants for a total of $1.8 million.

The recent catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has renewed interest in the fund and in assuring Americans get some benefit in exchange for the environmental risks posed by off-shore drilling.

Sportsman Jerry Wells said the LWCF was crucial in the early days of securing public access to Montana’s world-renowned trout fisheries.

“We had a huge battle in Montana to get access to our rivers, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund was instrumental in acquiring access to our rivers in the early ’70s, before the state had its own program,” Wells said.

Among other parcels, Wells noted that the Camp Baker put-in for floating the popular Smith River was purchased with LWCF money.

Eric Grove, owner of Great Divide Cyclery on Jackson Street, said the concerted effort to secure public lands has helped keep his shop open. The LWCF helped purchase the Wakina Sky Meadows land, considered a linchpin of the local trail network.

“The South Hills trail system is essential to my business, but it’s also essential to businesses all over Helena,” Grove said, noting that many downtown restaurants and other service businesses “benefit from people who come to Helena to ride our trail system.”

Reporter John Harrington: 447-4080 or john.harrington@helenair.com



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