The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) snuck its way into the federal spending bill passed by Congress before the holiday break, renewing the widely-popular pool of money for the next three years.
The LWCF uses revenue from offshore oil and gas leases to enhance access to public lands. This includes everything from preserving parks and fishing accesses, to buying big conservation easements.
“It’s more money than we’ve had in the LWCF in the last couple of years, and that means at least for now, in the near term, we are pretty confident that we will get some of our big projects in Montana funded," said Dick Dolan, the Northern Rockies director for the Trust for Public Land.
Dolan was critical that the fund wasn’t permanently reauthorized at its $900 million capacity. Instead, it received about half that, but still an increase from last year’s $300 million.
Montana’s Congressional staffers say that almost $10 million is headed to the state in 2016. It will go to three federal agencies and a large project facilitated by the Trust for Public Land as part of the Forest Legacy Project.
“Montana has always done pretty well by LWCF," said Chris Mehl from the Bozeman-based, nonprofit research firm Headwaters Economics. "If you look at those years 2011 to 2014, the last four years that are available, we have had as many projects as almost any other state. For example, we had 41 approved, Michigan had 43. Even California which is much, much larger per population didn’t have that many more than us.”
Mehl, who studies land management issues, credits Montana’s Congressional delegation for the LWCF's bipartisan support.
But he calls the Fund’s recent revival a limited victory. He says the challenge for Montana will be to continue convincing the federal government that conservation projects in the state are worthy of financing in the future.
“I think it will be quite competitive," Mehl said. "They are unfortunately having to turn down far more projects than they are approving.”
The Trust for Public Land’s Dolan is relieved that backing for his organization’s 2016 projects are now secure. This include $6.5 million for a watershed conservation easement purchase at Trumbull Creek near Columbia Falls.
The Trumbull initiative received the largest chunk of Montana's funding. The remainder is going to the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service for other projects.
But the uncertainty of congressional appropriations make it difficult to plan ahead. This is especially true, Dolan adds, for projects that require community cooperation.
“They only dedicated first year’s funding. So for fiscal year '17 and '18, all bets are off if we are going to start from scratch, and it will be the old familiar political football again,” he said.
Montana’s chapter of the Nature Conservancy, which lobbies federal agencies to identify LWCF proposals, says to ensure conservation efforts continue advocates must push forward, despite Washington’s unpredictable nature.
“The work is always ongoing," said Dave Carr, the Conservancy's director of protection. "We are always in dialog with the agencies trying to work with them. But without the funding being known, it’s always difficult, and you’re just trying to do the best you can, and they are too.”
Senators Tester and Daines, and Congressman Zinke all say they’re looking ahead to 2017 to prioritize projects for inclusion under the conservation fund’s budgeting. Whatever that amount might be.