U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, center, flanked by Mary Hollow with Prickly Pear Land Trust, right, and Mark Lambrecht with Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation,

In this August 2018 file photo, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, center, flanked by Mary Hollow with Prickly Pear Land Trust, right, and Mark Lambrecht with Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, speaks at Spring Meadow Lake State Park in Helena about legislation aiming to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Funding that has put more than $540 million toward projects in Montana to increase access to outdoor recreation expired Sunday, but legislation set to advance as soon as Tuesday could put it back on track for authorization.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund uses offshore oil and gas development revenues to help support conservation efforts. The fund is authorized to receive $900 million annually, but that’s only happened twice since it was created in 1964. The fund has only expired once before, in 2015 when it later received temporary authorization. 

The fund has bipartisan support, including from all three members of Montana’s congressional delegation. But it expired this year as legislation to permanently reauthorize it at the full $900 million level stalled. 

A vote for a bill in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to make funding permanent and at the full level is set for Tuesday. Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, is on the committee. The bill is the Land and Water Conservation Authorizing and Funding Act, from Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

A spokeswoman for Daines said Monday the senator will push to pass the bill out of committee, which is expected.

“Sen. Daines has consistently and aggressively worked in a bipartisan fashion to get permanent reauthorization and full funding of LWCF across the finish line by the Sept. 30 deadline,” said spokeswoman Katie Schoettler. “While it’s disappointing the deadline has approached without action, as one of the strongest champions of LWCF, the senator will not stop fighting until this gets done.”

Mary Hollow, the executive director of Prickly Pear Land Trust in Helena, said Monday while there’s no immediate financial effect of the fund expiring, it creates a huge level of uncertainty that can delay, derail or stop projects from being introduced at all.

“It’s impossible to plan for things if you don't know what the future looks like for the program,” Hollow said. “It’s absolutely unacceptable for this to happen and for Congress to leave this in limbo.”

Hollow said she thinks Congress is as close as it’s ever been to fully authorizing the fund for the first time and said it was important for Daines, who has co-sponsored the legislation and took to the Senate floor to support it, to help move the bill before the Senate committee forward.

“Congress has been kicking the can down the road every year. They’ve been doing temporary re-authorizations on this program instead of doing what they need to do and what the right thing to do is, which is just make it permanent,” Hollow said.

There's another vehicle in the U.S. House to authorize full and permanent funding. That’s a bill from U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.

U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, wants that to pass tied to his bill that would use un-allocated revenue from energy production on federal lands to help address a $11 billion backlog in maintenance at national parks.

LWCF has its seen its share of detractors as well, with most opposition centered on using the fund to acquire additional federal lands in the face of billions in current maintenance backlogs. 

Bishop on Monday issued a statement saying the fund “can and will” be reauthorized.

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“The best path forward is to include it in a broader legislative lands package that addresses the National Park maintenance backlog and other lands related measures,” Bishop said in a statement. 

Montana’s U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte sits on that House committee and has pushed for both measures in the past.

“Susan and I know the importance of our public lands. We raised our children hunting, fishing, and backpacking on them. They’re part of our way of life,” Gianforte said in a statement “LWCF protects and increases access to our public lands, and I will continue being a strong voice for LWCF and for its permanent reauthorization.”

Some members of the Montana LWCF Coalition, which includes conservation, business and sportsmen groups, also called on Daines and Gianforte to do whatever they can.

Montana’s senior U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, voted for the federal omnibus budget bill earlier this year that included $425 million for LWCF, and has sponsored legislation to fully fund and make the program permanent. While Tester said he'd rather see a stand-alone bill to preserve the program, it's possible the best chance is attaching funding to must-pass legislation Congress needs to address before the end of the year.

“LWCF is the best tool we have to increase public access to our public lands and it helps drive Montana’s $7 billion outdoor economy," Tester said in a statement Monday. "The folks who control the agenda in Congress need to walk the walk because we’ve heard enough talk. Let’s start by passing my bipartisan bill so hunters, hikers and anglers can guarantee that we have long-term ability to strengthen our public lands and defend out outdoor way of life.”

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State Bureau reporter for The Independent Record.

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