There is a little-known bill before the U.S. Senate that, if not passed, could jeopardize land and water conservation in Montana’s future.

S. 2747, sponsored by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., would amend the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965 to “provide consistent and reliable authority for, and for the funding of, the land and water conservation fund to maximize the effectiveness of the fund for future generations, and for other purposes.”

S. 2747 calls for fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, or LWCF, at the intended $900 million. In the program’s 44-year history, LWCF funding has been low and unpredictable, reaching full funding only twice, Jeff Barber, director of government relations for The Nature Conservancy, recently told the Independent Record editorial board.

The LWCF is funded by offshore oil and gas revenues, but it is up to the appropriators in Congress as to how much of those receipts actually go into the fund. Any offshore receipts that aren’t appropriated to the fund can be used for other general-fund activities. While the fund has received boosts at times (such as in 1998, 2001 and last year) appropriations have fluctuated wildly throughout the program’s history, hovering around $150 million to $200 million.

Sens. Baucus and Bingaman’s bill would guarantee the LWCF gets the full $900 million per year. The revenues of the offshore oil and gas account have also dipped and peaked over the years, and are estimated next year to be approximately $11 billion to $12 billion.

The bill was introduced in November, and currently sits with the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

The LWCF is used to preserve land across America. Over its lifespan, the program has added millions of acres to our national parks, national wildlife refuges, national forests and federal lands. The program also provides important state grants that support the protection of recreation lands at the local level.

Here in Montana, some $345.38 million has been spent since 1965. The funds, which are appropriated to government agencies for land and easement purchases, have helped secure projects like the esteemed Blackfoot Community Project (a private-public partnership that has succeeded in enhancing, conserving and protecting the natural resources and rural lifestyle of the Blackfoot River Valley) and the Gallatin Land Exchange. Since 2005, along the Rocky Mountain Front, nearly $3.98 million in LWCF investments have contributed to the protection of 43,000 acres of private land and leveraged approximately $29 million in private philanthropy.

The program has traditionally had wide bipartisan support. In fact, former Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican, was masterful at utilizing this program, helping secure much of the open space we’ve come to cherish in and around Helena, including the Wakina Sky ridge area.

But would there be enough projects nationwide to sustain the full funding of the LWCF?

“Absolutely. No doubt about that at all,” said Tom Cassidy, director of federal land programs for The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit conservation organization that works with government agencies on land purchases but does not directly receive LWCF funds.

Cassidy said many projects are waiting in the wings in Montana. And the tools to implement them — successful models, private funding matches and available land — side in Montana’s favor, says Art Noonan, the second in command at the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

“The reason it is so important to Montana is we have all these component pieces in place,” he said. “There has to be a mechanism for taking advantage of those circumstances when they arise.”

That’s why it’s so important this legislation moves out of committee and into law. Not only would it place an emphasis on preserving our cultural, historical and natural resources, it would be a real economic driver in Montana.

“Protecting our outdoor heritage is vital to not only Montanans, but to all Americans,” Baucus said. “Whether ensuring future generations of Montanans can enjoy the thrill of fishing a blue-ribbon trout stream or for the thousands of recreation-related jobs in Montana, protecting our outdoor heritage just makes sense. We have a moral obligation to leave this world a better place than we inherited it, and legislation like this will go a long ways to achieving this noble goal.”

Well said, Senator. Now go get this through the floor and into law.

The revenue from the offshore oil and gas account was intended in the 1965 act to “assist in preserving, developing and assuring accessibility to outdoor recreation resources.” It should be used that way, and in its entirety, instead of piecemealing conservation projects through other appropriations bills.

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