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With fewer than 50 days until funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund expires, Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines told a group in Helena on Monday he wants to see the funding made permanent so the cycle of uncertainty around the program ends.

“What we need to do is permanently authorize LWCF and authorize also to the original levels that were north of $900 million,” Daines said. “I’m doubling down on every possible avenue we have to get this reauthorized before Sept. 30.”

The Land and Water Conservation Fund was established in 1965 and uses revenue from offshore oil and gas royalty payments to pay for conservation and recreation projects, including helping establish about 70 percent of fishing access sites in Montana. Between 2005 and 2017, the state has received $240 million.

The fund is authorized for up to $900 million but has only reached that level once because Congress often taps the money to fill budget holes elsewhere.

Daines supports full and permanent reauthorization along with the rest of Montana's congressional delegation. House and Senate bills are moving through Congress that would permanently reauthorize the funding; Daines said he thinks the Senate bill has the best chance.

“The permanency is important because again we’ve got so many individuals here who are working on longer-term projects,” Daines said. “We have the uncertainty where we don’t know if Congress is going to fund it from one year to the next.

"There’s already enough uncertainty for most of the parties involved.”

Dave Kuntz, a press secretary for U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, said Monday the senator “welcomes Sen. Daines' commitment to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and he joins Montanans in urging Sen. Daines to use his position to fully fund it and to stand up to anyone who wants to weaken public access to our public lands."

U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte said Monday he also wants to see full and permanent funding.

“I know how important the LWCF is to Montana and support its permanent reauthorization,'' he said. "I’ll continue being a strong voice for the LWCF as it helps preserve and expand access for Montanans on our public lands." 

Daines met with representatives from The Nature Conservancy, Montana Wildlife Federation, Montana Association of Land Trusts, Prickly Pear Land Trust and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation at Spring Meadow State Park in Helena, which was created in part with the conservation funding.

Mary Hollow, executive director of Prickly Pear Land Trust, said a project adjacent to Spring Meadow State Park illustrated the roadblocks created because of uncertainty with funding.

At the Tenmile Creek Park, which connects to Spring Meadow and is the only urban access to Tenmile Creek, the land trust had to come up with a 25 percent match to complete working with the Army Compatible Use Buffer Program.

Prickly Pear didn’t look to Land and Water Conservation Funding because of the lack of permanency, Hollow said.

“LWCF, if it were fully funded and permanently authorized, would have been a perfect funding source to go to for that,” Hollow said. “There’s just no way to do that until we have permanent re-authorization and dedicated mandatory funding.

"We need to know long before we do something we’re going to actually be able to make the acquisitions we need to make. It makes it impossible to plan when you have no idea if the funding is going to be available."

Hollow said the same issues come into play on conservation easements on generational private family ranches, which she said need even more long-term reliability.

“There’s very little ability for those families to depend on that source,” Hollow said.

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Hollow also asked Daines about funding for the nearly $12 billion backlog of failing infrastructure at national parks and how the effort to fund those projects might intersect with Land and Water Conservation Funding.

Daines is a sponsor of the National Park Restoration Act, which would use money generated from offshore development, as well as onshore renewables and geothermal, to provide about half the funding needed to tackle the infrastructure projects.

The bill redirects money that now goes into the general treasury and Land and Water Conservation Funding must be paid out before money goes to parks.

Hollow wants to make sure if parks funding moves forward, Land and Water Conservation Funding goes with it and isn’t pushed to the back burner.

Park maintenance is "an important thing to do, absolutely, but LWCF has had a much longer standing on (offshore drilling) revenues,” Hollow said.

Hollow said there are conservation projects that, if not funded soon, won’t exist a few years down the road.

“We are in a time when we’re seeing increasing residential and commercial development pressures throughout the state and the opportunity to protect critical wildlife habitat and critical sportsmen access projects, we need to be able to act on those right now,'' she said.

Daines, who chairs the National Parks subcommittee in the Senate, said as the national parks in Montana see record attendance, they're also suffering from the stress of those visitors.

"Congress has delayed dealing with an important issue," Daines said. "They're two very important initiatives. We can do both, we should do both. The LWCF is something we debate every year and we reauthorize every year. I'd like to see it permanently reauthorized and the full funding of $900 million for that. The maintenance backlog has not been addressed for years now, for a generation." 

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State Bureau reporter for The Independent Record.

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