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Critics Decry Changes To Land And Water Conservation Fund

A woman stands in a stream fly fishing

Critics say a U.S. Department of Interior order issued earlier this week guts a federal program that uses money from oil and gas drilling to buy land for recreation and conservation.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) received full funding of $900 million per year for the first time in its half-century history when the Great American Outdoors Act was signed into law in early August.

John Gale, conservation director at Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, says the LWCF is a critical tool in improving wildlife habitat across big landscapes, creating hiker and hunter entry to public land that’s closed off by private property, and establishing public access sites on rivers all over Montana.

"So next time you’re doing a boat launch and going for a float with your family or friends, that experience may be brought to you by LWCF."

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s new order requires governors and local governments to approve land sales. Gale said that could create lengthy delays, or mean projects get nixed before they’re off the ground.

"If I’m a private landowner, I’m upset by this just as much as any other people that value public lands and waters should be."

It also sidelines Bureau of Land Management projects. A priorities list for the LWCF contains two BLM projects in Montana totaling more than $13 million: one that would protect hunting and other recreation land along the Blackfoot River, and another that would open up over 9,000 acres of land near the Musselshell River.

Both of Montana’s U.S. Senators were co-sponsors of the bill that fully funded the LWCF. Republican U.S. Senator Steve Daines campaigned on his role in getting it passed.

In a statement, Sen. Daines voiced dissatisfaction with the changes in the order and said they "must be corrected going forward to ensure Montana voices are heard."

Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said in a press release he is deeply concerned with the changes.

In the order, Secretary Bernhardt said the changes coordinate and clarify how LWCF funds are used.

Conservation and outdoor recreation groups across the country have issued statements condemning the order. 

Nick Mott is a reporter and podcast producer based in Livingston, Montana.
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