Land and Water Conservation Fund likely to sunset despite support

Tom Kuglin

by Independent Record

Without a late amendment to the U.S. Senate’s continuing resolution to fund the government through December, the Land and Water Conservation Fund will not be reauthorized for the first time in its 50-year history.

Many conservation groups and outdoor business interests in Montana were hopeful that LWCF, which uses a portion of offshore oil royalties for conservation matching grants, would find reauthorization and secured funding ahead of the sunset. While Montana’s congressional delegation backs LWCF, the likelihood that it will be left out has those who have lobbied in support of reauthorization frustrated.

“If LWCF reauthorization doesn’t get included and we let this fund expire, that is very bad day for Montanans’ way of life and our economy,” said Mary Hollow, executive director of Prickly Pear Land Trust.

New deposits into LWCF will cease Oct. 1. The fund is authorized for up to $900 million annually but has rarely reached that level through appropriations.

LWCF has funded more than $400 million in projects in Montana and $15 billion in projects nationwide, including large habitat acquisitions, conservation easements, fishing access sites and city parks and fields.

“If this important program is not included on the Continuing Resolution, we lose our best shot at extending the program’s authorization before it expires and giving us the time to permanently reauthorize LWCF once and for all,” wrote Marne Hayes, director of Business for Montana’s Outdoors, in a recent letter to Montana’s congressional delegation.

Sen. Steve Daines’ office maintained that LWCF will remain funded at current levels and all projects will continue as planned under the CR that funds the government through Dec. 11 despite the sunset. The fund still has $20 billion that has not been appropriated, said Daines spokeswoman Katie Waldman.

“Sen. Daines is supportive of any and all avenues that lead to permanent reauthorization and funding of LWCF,” she said in an email.

Daines will keep pressure on his colleagues with momentum behind reauthorization continuing to strengthen, Waldman said. The senator is hopeful that momentum will lead the House to prioritize LWCF in the near future, she added.

“The House and Senate has multiple pieces of must-pass legislation coming up and the discussion surrounding the importance of LWCF as a tool to public access does not fade after Sept. 30,” Waldman said.

Sen. Jon Tester said he will continue to negotiate, but that a potential reauthorization path he sees will come with longer term budget discussions as the CR expires in December. Projects should not be affected with the available funding until then, he said.

“It’s just negotiation and touching base and getting bipartisan groups of people to be able to advocate to each sides’ leadership that it is important, and we already and will continue to do this to both sides,” he said.

The surprising resignation of Speaker of the House John Boehner on Friday makes those negotiations even more challenging with the uncertainty surrounding future leadership, Tester said.

“Any time there’s uncertainty around a program it puts the program at risk, especially this day and age,” he said. “There’s plenty of reasons to do it, plus there’s landscapes that are leaving on a daily basis so we need to continue to make the push. I feel reasonably comfortable we’ll get it in the longer CR, but I didn’t think Boehner was going to resign either.”

Resistance to LWCF has largely come from conservatives opposed to expanding federal ownership of lands. Opponents also argue that LWCF should be reformed for other needs such as management rather than acquisition, or that funds should be spent on smaller local projects.

“Special interests that seek to hijack LWCF to continue to expand the federal estate and divert even more monies away from localities conveniently claim the world is ending on Sept. 30th,” Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said in a statement. “The only thing that expires on Sept. 30 is the ability to accrue additional revenues into the fund, which currently has an unappropriated balance of $20 billion in taxpayer dollars. How many billions more do these special interests group need?”

The $20 billion figure cited by Daines and Bishop comes from the difference between the maximum authorized level of $900 million and what was actually appropriated each year, Hollow said, meaning the funding was already appropriated elsewhere. She disagrees that the funding is still available.

“This is a paper account with nothing in it — there are only cobwebs,” she said. “The $20 billion has already been spent — diverted to fund other things. Congress is not going to spend money that’s not there, so it’s inaccurate and unrealistic to think that if LWCF expires and we lose our authorization and revenue source that it would be business as usual.

“In Montana and across the country, we have been working on reauthorization for over a decade, because it absolutely matters.”

Dedicated funding that does not have to go through appropriations each year is critical to maintaining LWCF, she said. With the unknown funding levels each year, those applying for funds struggle because they do not know how much will be available.

Those lobbying for LWCF are looking to Montana’s delegation, particularly Republicans Daines and Rep. Ryan Zinke, to “double down” on their support, Hollow said.

“The White House wants this, House and Senate Democrats want this, a lot of Republicans also support this and it’s them who we are really counting on to convince their leadership,” she said.