Missoulian: Interior reverses Land and Water Conservation Fund restrictions

by Rob Chaney

The rules governing federal Land and Water Conservation Fund spending took another turn on Thursday when Biden administration officials undid some last-minute policies installed under the Trump administration.

“Interior’s actions today affirm our support for one of America’s most successful and popular conservation programs,” Interior Department Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Shannon Estenoz said. “We look forward to strengthening this successful program to ensure that all communities – from hikers and sportsmen to urban and underserved communities – have access to nature and the great outdoors.”

Last August, Congress included $900 million in annual mandatory funding for LWCF in the Great American Outdoors Act, essentially doubling the amount of money available to protect landscapes ranging from wildlife habitat to city playgrounds.

But on Nov. 2, President Donald Trump’s Interior Secretary, David Bernhardt, failed to meet a statutory deadline to nominate LWCF projects. Trump lost the presidential election the next day. On Nov. 9, Bernhardt signed Secretarial Order 3388, which imposed new restrictions on how LWCF money could be spent on federal land and water acquisitions.

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That drew widespread criticism from conservation groups across the nation, as well as from Montana’s congressional delegation. On Thursday, President Joe Biden’s new Interior Department leaders signed Secretarial Order 3396 revoking Bernhardt’s order.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, was one of the chief co-sponsors of increased and permanent funding for LWCF. On Thursday, he called the reversal a victory that got rid of burdensome federal regulations.

“This reversal is a victory for Montana’s public lands and for private property owners who know the federal government has no business telling Montanans what to do with their own land,” Tester wrote in an email. “Now that this federal overreach has been rolled back, we can focus on getting back to using the LWCF the way it was intended: working with folks on the ground to protect our most important landscapes and create new recreational opportunities.”

The new Interior policy also instructs the National Park Service to remove restrictive polices imposed under Bernhardt, and to reinstate previous rules for the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Program that directs funds to underserved urban area parks and facilities.

That drew prompt praise from organizations such as the Hispanic Access Foundation, whose president, Maite Arce, said the action would restore efforts to close “the nature gap” in Latino communities.

“The Nature Gap has left a legacy of poorer health and COVID-19 severity, higher stress levels, worse educational outcomes, lack of recreation and business opportunities and greater vulnerability to extreme heat and flooding in these nature-deprived neighborhoods,” Arce said in an email on Thursday.

LWCF funding, Arce said, helped fix the “lack of parks, nature and green space within communities of color and low-income communities.”

Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership President Whit Fosburgh said the Trump restrictions “could have crippled getting these crucial dollars to the ground.”

“Sportsmen and sportswomen want to ensure that the LWCF is working to increase public access to outdoor recreation opportunities and conserve important habitats,” Fosburgh said in an email. “This is going to require investments in agency capacity, prioritization of areas with recreational value, and coordination between federal, state, and private partners. We appreciate that hunters and anglers are being heard in this process.”

Montana has received more than $600 million in LWCF funding over the last five decades. For 2021, Congress has slated at least seven Montana projects 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.