The Land and Water Conservation Fund was supposed to be a done deal.
The legislation that finally provided full and permanent funding for the LWCF has been signed and celebrated. Congratulations have been passed around to all those who worked so hard to kick it across the finish line.
The LWCF will be fully funded in perpetuity at $900 million a year thanks to the Great American Outdoors Act, which also allocated $9.5 billion to begin work on the backlog of maintenance projects on federal lands. That funding is expected to create at least 100,000 jobs and provide a much-needed shot in the arm to states like Montana that have significant outdoor economies, while taking some of the pressure off public lands that have seen record visitation in recent months in spite of — or perhaps due to — the pandemic.
But instead of rolling out as duly authorized, allowing states to start planning for important land projects in 2021 and putting people to work, the LWCF is entangled in a mess of regulatory strings unnecessarily attached by Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt.
Bernhardt is supposedly an advocate for removing federal roadblocks, not putting up more. He was roundly criticized, for instance, for skipping the Senate confirmation process before appointing William Perry Pendley as acting director of the Bureau of Land Management. Montanans know Pendley as a former attorney for oil interests and head of the Mountain States Legal Foundation that argued for opening the sacred Badger-Two Medicine lands bordering the Blackfeet Reservation to oil drilling. Following a court challenge from Gov. Steve Bullock, a federal district judge in Montana ruled that Pendley had held the office unlawfully for more than a year and ordered him removed from his position. The Interior Department said it would comply with the order while pursuing an appeal.
In the meantime, the agency has also busied itself with needlessly confusing the LWCF. The Great American Outdoors Act set out a 90-day timeline for both the U.S. Agriculture and Interior departments to compile separate lists of projects eligible for LWCF funding. Even though a draft list was offered back in April, the Interior still managed to miss its Nov. 2 deadline, then released Bernhardt’s Secretarial Order 3388 on the same day the Trump administration provided a list of projects. And even now, the list is frustratingly short on detail.
Worse, some states were surprised that not a single one of their proposed projects made the Interior’s very short list. In all, 20 projects spanning 24 states were included in the Interior’s list of land acquisitions. Montana has just one project on the list, which is also the priciest: $10 million to allow Fish and Wildlife Services to acquire 756 fee acres for the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Reserve and an additional 12,500 conservation easement acres within the Rocky Mountain Front, Blackfoot Valley and Swan Valley Conservation Areas. The next-largest amount is $8 million to acquire tracts of bottomland hardwood forests in Kentucky. But even all added up, the project list totals $75.5 million — nowhere near the $360 million congressionally mandated for land acquisition.
It’s important to understand the outsized role this program has played in building and maintaining Montana’s outdoor opportunities. Missoula County has leveraged LWCF funding for dozens of projects since the program was established in 1965, including $500,000 for the famed Travelers’ Rest State Park. LWCF money has been used throughout the state to build trails and neighborhood parks, to restore watersheds and wildlife habitat, and to maintain historic sites and national parks. Montana was awarded more than $1.2 million in funding for 13 projects in 2018, and seven community grants awarded in 2019 added up to more than $1.2 million as well.
This money does not come from taxpayers, but rather from the millions of dollars in fees generated by offshore oil and gas development. Despite the program’s popularity, its efficacy and its legacy, it was perennially in danger of being allowed to sunset until Congress passed permanent reauthorization in March 2019 as part of the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act.
Both Montana Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines are counted among the LWCF’s committed supporters, and both immediately pledged to follow up directly with the Interior Department when they learned of Bernhardt’s order.
"Any changes to implementing this program should be made as a result of careful, collaborative public engagement, and in line with the intent of Congress,” Tester wrote in November. “This order meets neither standard."
Daines emailed a statement saying, “Unfortunately in developing the new LWCF framework, DOI did not rely on the transparency, collaboration, and partnerships that have made this critical conservation program so successful for decades. This must be corrected going forward to ensure Montana voices are heard.”
Their joint efforts to demand fixes are welcome. However, Rep. Greg Gianforte may have more immediate say over the funding’s fate in the new year. As governor-elect, and according to the Interior’s order, he must approve any land acquisition project before it can receive LWCF funding. Furthermore, his office and the State Land Board will have to work with Interior to complete a “review of the state program manual,” again according to the secretary’s order.
Montanans have long counted on our congressional delegation to work together when it comes to protecting public lands and public access to those lands. We must all continue to work together to make sure LWCF funds are used in the straightforward manner they were originally intended — and not used to turn public land projects into political footballs.
— The Missoulian
This editorial represents the views of the Missoulian Editorial Board: Publisher Jim Strauss, Regional Editor David McCumber and Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen.