Missoulian: After Interior misses deadline, Senate considers Montana spending

by Rob Chaney

While the Interior Department missed its deadline for listing new Land and Water Conservation Fund spending by a week and then provided little detail, the Senate Appropriations Committee has offered its own version including $39.3 million slated for Montana projects.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on Monday informed Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, of his agencies’ plans for spending the full $900 million annually authorized for LWCF in the Great American Outdoors Act. But the letter’s spending charts contained no information about specific projects. And critics argued a big chunk of the money was being spent on state grants instead of federal lands as the law required.

“Congress was clear and explicit about what it wanted from the Department of Interior – specifically calling for 40% of LWCF funds to go to federal land protection,” Coalitions to Protect America’s National Parks Chairman Phil Francis said on Tuesday. “This did not happen, and to add insult to injury, this list includes $120 million for the Forest Legacy Program under ‘Federal Land Grants’ – but Forest Legacy grants go to states and have always been counted as state grants. This is a clear attempt to fudge the math, since including that $120 million gets the federal land portion to exactly 40%. Without it, it’s only 27%.”

Bernhardt’s letter has a state-by-state list of 2021 “mandatory spending” that includes one mention of Montana national wildlife refuges and conservation areas, but no specifics or cost amounts. His letter was dated Nov. 9, a week past the deadline stated in the Great American Outdoors Act.

In contrast, the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Interior, Environment and Related Agencies spending bill released on Tuesday has at least seven Montana projects slated for LWCF funding, including Forest Service allocations of $6 million for Lolo trail work and $4 million for the Bad Rock Canyon Conservation Project near Columbia Falls; $3.3 million for Bureau of Land Management efforts in the Blackfoot River Corridor; and $2 million for Fish and Wildlife Service national wildlife refuges and conservation areas.

Political observers often cite the axiom: The president proposes and Congress disposes. Presidential spending plans tend to lay out an administration’s broad agenda, while Congress members negotiate among themselves for what they’ll eventually agree to spend. Local interest groups seeking federal support either petition a Congress member and/or work their project through the bureaucracy of an agency like the Forest Service.

The 2020 presidential election has thrown that process in limbo. While Democrat Joe Biden has won both the popular and electoral college vote according to nationwide state election counts and media projections, Republican President Donald Trump has refused to concede defeat or begin the process of transferring administrative authority. In addition, Trump has ordered his department heads to continue preparing budget plans for 2021, on the assumption he will still be in office.

Furthermore, the Republican-controlled Senate has pushed out 2021 appropriations bills without the traditional committee mark-up, or public review of spending proposals. That eliminates the ability of senators to propose amendments or debate spending priorities, according to Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana.

“I’m deeply disturbed that our usual legislative processes have been thrown out the window,” said Tester, who sits on the Appropriations Committee. “Circumventing a markup prevents us from crafting legislation that will do the most good for the American people, and instead allows my colleagues to bypass a meaningful process and include provisions – like nearly $2 billion for an ineffective border wall – without any accountability to the public.”