Interior Secretary Jewell touts conservation fund in Montana

Associated Press


HELENA – Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Tuesday used Montana’s scenic Hauser Lake as a backdrop while urging Congress to permanently reauthorize a key funding source for the country’s parks and recreation system.

Federal officials have cobbled together a temporary funding extension until Congress can decide whether to rededicate money from oil and gas royalties for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The U.S. Senate has already moved to reinstate funding as part of a broader energy bill, but the House has yet to act.

The conservation fund, which was established in 1965, lapsed last year and Congress later extended it for three years. Historically, the program has received $900 million a year through royalties paid by energy companies that drill offshore for oil and gas. In recent years, that amount was reduced to $400 million.

Jewell made her plea at a news conference at Devil’s Elbow Recreation Area northeast of Helena. The federal government purchased the area in 1998 from the Montana Power Co. and other private landowners using $600,000 in conservation funds.

Jewell was joined by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, who helped push the reauthorization through the Senate.

The Interior Department recently released $95 million in fund money, nearly $900,000 of it destined for Montana, Jewell said.

Last month, Jewell announced a joint project with the Commerce Department to study how outdoor recreation contributes to the nation’s economy. Her office estimated that $5.8 billion is pumped into Montana’s economy every year by the outdoor recreation industry.

In a recent speech, she said natural areas are disappearing at an alarming rate, particularly in the West.

Immediately after her stop in Helena, Jewell headed for the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning to meet with tribal leaders about a land buy-back program.

Montana Republicans had also wanted Jewell to visit communities they say could be devastated by a prolonged moratorium on new coal leases, but the secretary said it was not part of her itinerary this time.

She says the moratorium won’t harm the state’s economy because current leases won’t disrupt the coal industry’s viability for at least two decades.

“There’s 20 years of supply right now under lease in Montana,” she said. “So this pause on the leasing … will have no impact on coal jobs or coal mines staying open or power plants continuing to operate. I want to make that clear.”

Tester said he and Jewell met for an hour with coal workers to talk about issues and challenges in the region.