Have you ever used a state fishing access site to get onto Montana’s world-class trout streams? Have you ever taken to the field pursuing big game, or just enjoyed spotting wildlife while traveling our state?
And closer to home, have you ever been to a city park, swimming pool or playground?
Of course you have. We’re Montanans. The outdoors are a big part of our lives. It’s why we live here. And we know that we’re blessed to enjoy abundant, world-class fish and wildlife resources, public lands and access some of the most stunning landscapes on earth.
What’s less known is the federal program that for nearly five decades has put money into key wildlife habitat, public access and recreational sites that benefit everyone. It’s called the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was created in 1963 and has since then benefited nearly every county in the United States.
The program uses a simple mechanism for funding. A small portion of the taxes on offshore oil and gas drilling leases is set aside for conservation projects that enhance everything from national parks to local baseball fields.
Montana has certainly been a huge beneficiary. Since its inception the Treasure State has received $417 million in LWCF dollars. It’s done amazing work.
For example, more than 200 projects to purchase or improve our state’s system of fishing access sites have been helped by LWCF funding. Those sites, scattered throughout the state, ensure that everyone has access to our streams and lakes for fishing and boating.
Wildlife, and along with it hunters, have benefited too. In recent years the program has helped secure some key habitat that is vital to sustain abundant wildlife.
That includes a project in the Tenderfoot drainage near White Sulphur Springs. Dollars from LWCF are helping to purchase more than 8,000 acres of private land that is scattered throughout National Forest lands in a checkerboard pattern. The purchases are even more important because it open access for hunters to thousands of acres of public land behind the private inholdings, creating more opportunity for everyone.
And finally, LWCF dollars have been spent throughout Montana on numerous city parks, swimming pools, tennis courts and playgrounds that get used every day by Montanans from all walks of life.
But LWCF has benefits that go beyond our quality of life. Outdoor recreation accounts for $5.8 billion in consumer spending in our state, supports 64,000 jobs and generates $1.5 billion in wages, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.
In Montana, we know that the natural wonders we enjoy every day are also our country’s national treasures. And we’ve always welcomed people from across our country and the world to come and enjoy our great state, to the tune of 10 million visitors every year. The sites that LWCF has funded play a big role in making it possible for everyone to enjoy Big Sky Country’s mountains, forests and streams.
But for all its success, the program has not lived up to its full potential. That’s because Congress authorized up to $900 million for the fund when it was first passed. But in 49 years, Congress has only once fully funded the program, using those receipts from drilling for other purposes.
We have a chance to correct that. A bipartisan bill to reauthorize the program in perpetuity, S. 338, already has 27 co-sponsors, including Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester. And the bill would fully fund LWCF at $900 million per year.
It’s difficult to imagine what our state – and our country – would look like without one of the premier conservation success stories of the past half century. And it’s difficult to think about the impact on our recreation economy if this program went away.
As Montanans, we know that we not only need these special places where we hike, camp, fish, hunt and play, but we also need access to them. The Land and Water Conservation Fund has been a staggering success in ensuring that. It’s crucial that this program gets renewed and fully funded so that future generations can enjoy the outdoors, just as we have.
Nick Gevock is the outreach director for the Montana Wildlife Federation.