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Senate committee action on Thursday saw funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund restored to current year levels, but reauthorization for the program that uses offshore oil lease royalties to buy wildlife habitat still faces a looming September sunset.

The 1965 LWCF has funded more than $400 million in projects in Montana and $15 billion in projects nationwide using matching grants and federal acquisition of wildlife habitat and recreation open space. The act allows Congress to authorize up to $900 million from offshore oil and gas leases, but full funding has been a rarity with funds diverted to other programs.

LWCF came into the Senate Appropriations Committee Thursday funded at $292 million. A successful amendment to the Department of Interior appropriations bill co-sponsored by Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, added $14 million to bring total funding to match this year at $306 million. But whether that funding will ever hit the ground still hinges on reauthorization before a Sept. 30 deadline.

“Steve sees today’s vote as a positive step forward,” said Daines communications director Alee Lockman. “It’s a first step towards strong funding for the program -- he’d love to see even stronger funding, but it’s a step in the right direction to actual reauthorization.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, brought an amendment that would fund LWCF at $400 million contingent on reaching a budget deal on sequestration, or mandatory spending reductions. That amendment failed on a 14-16 party-line vote.

“The Land and Water Conservation Fund allows the Forest Service to be able to protect ecosystems that are, quite frankly, pretty important to this country,” Tester told the committee.

The current demand for LWCF projects exceeds the funding levels, he said.

“Jon certainly would have liked to see LWCF funded at a higher level than it was, but he is pleased the fund ended up with similar funding to last year,” said Tester communications director Marnee Banks. “The conversation that took place regarding his amendment demonstrated that there is some bipartisan support for the program but the devil is in the details. Some folks have talked about making changes to LWCF and that came up during the conversation.

“Jon supports LWCF in its current form and wouldn’t support efforts that decrease public access to public land.”

In testimony on Tester’s amendment, Daines voiced support for LWCF but noted concerns about working within the current law and budget with an increase to $400 million.

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“I think we’re looking to, ultimately, what can we get across the finish line -- what reauthorization will be approved by the Senate and House and both sides of the aisle,” Lockman said. “We’re definitely working on it and having those conversations.”

Thursday’s action is the latest in monthslong maneuvering on LWCF. Some conservation groups levied criticism earlier this year at Daines after he voted against a clean LWCF reauthorization amendment to the Keystone XL Pipeline bill, which President Obama had vowed to veto.

Daines, who has publicly maintained his support for reauthorization, explained the vote in part by saying he wanted to look at improving the fund with input from constituents.

Reauthorization has seen opposition from groups and individuals opposed to federal ownership or acquisition of land. Others have argued that LWCF funding should go away from acquisition to other needs, such as management.

Supporters of LWCF in Montana have included numerous conservation and outdoor business groups, and some, such as The Wilderness Society, Montana Wildlife Federation and Business for Montana Outdoors, applauded Thursday’s action while continuing to push for reauthorization.

“The future of our outdoor traditions and associated economy depend on healthy families and ready access to special places which LWCF has provided for 50 years,” Marne Hayes of Business for Montana Outdoors said in an email. “While we appreciate the proposed bump in funding, we also need to keep our eye on the ball: Congress has 100 days to reauthorize LWCF and keep this critical program alive.”

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Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 or tom.kuglin@helenair.com

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Natural Resources Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter / Assistant Editor for The Independent Record.

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