In Missoula Friday, Montana’s Republican U.S. Senator, Steve Daines, said Senate leadership has committed to, “Put some kind of a package together of bills, public lands bills and conservation bills that we hope to move during the lame duck session. We’ll be back in session in the U.S. Senate on November 13 and we’ll have between then and the end of the year — which will be really the end of this Congress — to put something together.”
That could include reviving the Land and Water Conservation Fund, or LWCF, which expired at the end of September.
Despite plenty of bipartisan support and progress in both congressional chambers, LWCF re-authorization has remained just out of arm’s reach.
The Fund uses government revenue from offshore oil and gas leases to buy conservation easements and expand public lands, and access to them.
Many Montanans were discouraged when LWCF expired last month, but Kyle Weaver doesn’t sound too worried about its reauthorization.
Weaver, the President and CEO of the Missoula-based Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, says LWCF has plenty of good will behind it:
“They’re in those final stages now,” Weaver says. “I think it’s actually, overall, moved quicker than we would see most bills move, just because it has a lot of bipartisan support. There’s nothing thats alarming to us. We’re just waiting for it to move through and I think we’re going to see a good result.”
Janné Joy of the U.S Forest Service point out LWCF’s legacy cannot be overstated
“Oh my gosh, in Montana for the 53 years we’ve been participating in the Land and Water Conservation Fund program, Montana alone has received over $300 million just for the national forests,” she says. “We have so many opportunities and many projects are already in progress, so if we could continue to get appropriations then we could still continue to do great conservation and public access [work] particularly here in Montana in the northern region.”
Again, Senator Steve Daines.
“Lame duck sessions of Congress are oftentimes the windows that we use to put together public lands packages.”
Daines says he doesn’t think the polarizing midterm election will jeopardize LWCF’s reauthorization.
Other pieces of public lands legislation are also still in limbo. One measure to pay for an $11 billion National Park Service maintenance backlog remains unresolved; so is another bill to permanently block mining on 30,000 acres of public lands east of the Paradise Valley near Yellowstone National Park.
But it was LWFC that brought Daines to the Missoula-area late last week.
He was there to tour the Edith Project.
“This is a great example of how we get partnerships together to solve some of these issues of access to our public lands,” he says.
Montana’s public lands grew by just over 1,100 acres with last month’s closing of the Edith Peak project, which is made up of two parcels of land on the Ninemile Ranger District on the Lolo National Forest. Specifically, the area is about 4 miles due north of the Frenchtown ponds.
Janné Joy of the U.S Forest Service says those two parcels had a long checker-boarded past:
“Yes, it’s a persistent legacy of the 1903-1905 railroad checkerboard grants; they got every alternate section,” she says. “So, for over 100 years we had this checkerboard pattern.”
Several years, land transfers and deals later these two parcels of land were finally consolidated.
“In 2014, the United State bought $15 million worth of land surrounding these two parcels. We bought that from the Nature Conservancy,” Joy says. “It took us another four years to work with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Stimson Lumber to acquire this additional 1,000 acres.”
Joy says that final step was made possible using the Land and Water Conservation Fund before the program expired.
“It was crucial, yes,” she says. “Stimson gave us a bargain sale. They gave us a donation component that Rocky Mountain Elk (Foundation) passed on. But we used $425,000 of Land and Water Conservation funding in order to be able to purchase those two inholdings.”
What did the public get for that $425,000 investment?
“This is unfettered, legal access for the public now,” says Jennifer Doherty, director of lands for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “It also means more consistent management opportunities for that national forest for habitat, for elk, deer, moose, turkey and other wildlife."