After a difficult summer of hotter-than-usual temperatures and hazy skies from wildfires, we are eager for the golden autumn light that signals imminent hunting trips to some of our favorite parts of our beautiful state. We long to watch the sunrise over the sagebrush while looking for antelope and to pursue whitetail in our national forests. But this fall, we are also going to pay attention to something happening 2,000 miles away in Washington, D.C. where Congress is poised to make significant investments in our forests, grasslands and watersheds as part of an effort to put people to work and address our country’s infrastructure needs.
As we know all too well, Montana saw more than 2,000 fires this year that burned over 800,000 acres of our state. Those fires have forced people from their homes and cost the state upwards of $50-million in fire-fighting costs. It also displaced wildlife and consumed the forage they rely on. Biologists warn that drought and fires can have a devastating impact on the reproduction rates of pronghorn, elk and deer. The disturbance can bring in invasive grass and weeds. And when it rains after a fire, runoff pours into our streams and rivers killing fish and threatening drinking water supplies.
Fortunately, Congress is considering two pieces of legislation that could help reverse these impacts by investing in our nation’s natural infrastructure. The Build Back Better Act and the bipartisan infrastructure bill will restore forests, grasslands, and watersheds making them more resilient to wildfire, while preserving clean water supplies and protecting communities from the growing threat of climate-fueled disasters. These bills will also help restore wildlife migration corridors and other critical habitat areas so that wildlife populations can rebound.
The bills include funding to clean up orphaned oil and gas wells and abandoned mines. Every angler knows the transformation that can occur in our rivers when you clean up abandoned mines: think about the Clark Fork and the Blackfoot.
Less obvious but just as important, unplugged oil and gas wells in Montana — and across the nation — leak thousands of metric tons of greenhouse gases every year while toxins seep into groundwater and aquifers.
Key to eastern Montana, the infrastructure bill also has funding that can help fix coal seams, which were the cause of our state’s biggest fires this summer. All of these cleanup and restoration projects will create millions of jobs around the country to help fuel our nation’s economic recovery.
Congress also plans to invest in new technologies in places where fossil fuel workers have been hardest hit as the nation transitions to a clean energy economy. At the same time, the legislation brings long-overdue reforms to the nation’s oil and gas leasing system by requiring oil and gas companies to pay their fair share for using our public lands. The revenue raised by these reforms will be used to pay for many of these natural infrastructure investments.
We are glad to see that Congress is taking such a responsible approach to investing in the lands and waters that support the wildlife we care about so deeply.
These investments are historic. And Congressional leaders have proposed ways to pay for these projects so that future generations won’t be saddled with the costs. It is imperative that lawmakers find a way to cover the costs of this investment. It is equally imperative that Congress acts now. Future generations will pay a much steeper price through the impacts of catastrophic fires and storms made worse by our changing climate if they do not.
We thank Senator Tester for voting for the bipartisan infrastructure bill. We urge senators Daines and Tester to whole-heartedly support the next bill, the Build Back Better Act, that will invest in jobs for our forests, grasslands and watersheds. The future of Montana depends on it.
Kathy Hadley, a lifelong hunter and angler, lives on a small ranch in the Upper Clark Fork River valley in Montana and serves on the boards of the National Wildlife Federation and the Montana Wildlife Federation. Missoula resident Marcia Brownlee is the program manager for Artemis, a conservation group of women hunters and anglers.