In the coming weeks, bow hunting season kicks off in states across the West. Every year, thousands of Montanans and visitors hike deep into our public lands to camp, hunt and pass down the traditions that are the backbone to our way of life.
But if our elected officials like Sen. Steve Daines continue to dither on commonsense funding for those outdoor activities, that way of life will be put at risk. That isn’t political hyperbole.
For over five decades, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) has been one of the most important programs for protecting and conserving public lands and national monuments. It’s how important infrastructure projects that give us access to the backcountry are funded. Without this vital program, access for hunters, anglers and others could be drastically curtailed.
But now, with special interests running the Department of Interior and the White House, the fate of the LWCF is at risk.
Daines is well-aware of how the program benefits his state and constituents. To his credit, he has repeatedly promised to fully fund the program. But Montanans sent Daines to Washington to deliver for Montana, and instead he’s just brought back empty promises – even with his party controlling the Senate and White House.
Earlier this year, President Trump signed a bipartisan public lands package that permanently reauthorized the LWCF. That may sound like a victory, but it’s not. While the program was reauthorized, Trump’s budget for 2020 slashed LWCF funding by 95 percent. In 2019 Trump’s budget slashed the program by 98 percent, and in 2018 by 84 percent.
How is it that Trump and members of Congress like Daines can support a piece of legislation in one breath and then fail to fund the legislation in the next?
That’s like bragging that you bought a house without even getting a mortgage – let alone closing on the house. It makes no sense. It’s the type of Washington doublespeak that Daines has become all too fluent in.
The sad thing is that this fight over the LWCF shouldn’t even be a fight. For decades, the LWCF has consistently been reauthorized and funded by a bipartisan majority of Congress.
A recent poll found that the overwhelming majority of Western voters (83%) want Congress to reauthorize and fund the LWCF, which doesn’t cost taxpayers a dime. Funded by offshore drilling leases, the program has supported public lands protections, preservation of historic sites, and improved access to public lands with nearly $18 billion in funding.
Montana has economically benefited tremendously from the LWCF, which has invested more than $619.7 million to protect Montana’s open spaces, historic sites, and recreation areas. Montana’s outdoor recreation generates $7.1 billion annually in consumer spending and $286 million in state and local tax revenue, supports 71,000 jobs, which generates $2.2 billion in wages and salaries, and provides a space for nearly 1 million people annually to hunt, fish, and enjoy in Montana’s wildlife. The LWCF also supports improvements to both of Montana’s Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park.
And if the LWCF isn’t fully funded, America’s public lands could be sold off to the highest bidder, and ongoing conservation projects will suffer.
If Daines fails to deliver on his commitment to fully fund the critical LWCF, Montanans will be left with more of the same we routinely see from our politicians: empty votes and empty promises. The time to act is now.
Chris Saeger is the executive director of the Western Values Project, which is based in Whitefish.