Pictograph Cave State Park
The new visitor center at Pictograph Cave State Park drew a crowd at its grand opening July 17, 2009. The park is one of many Montana recipients of Land and Water Conservation Fund grants. LARRY MAYER/Gazette Staff

In coming months, the U.S. Senate will tackle a comprehensive energy package. With this legislation, Montanans will have an opportunity to boost our local economies, protect our unique outdoor areas and create recreation opportunities by fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Since its establishment in the 1960s, LWCF has used royalties from companies conducting offshore oil and gas development to protect wildlife refuges and national parks, as well as build community trails, parks, tennis courts and ball fields in Montana and across the country.

In the wake of the catastrophic gulf oil spill, this balance — between the extraction and sale of federal natural resources and permanent protection of wide open spaces — makes even more sense. Conservation is often the most cost-effective way to safeguard drinking water, keep our air clean and protect Montana’s special outdoor places.

The LWCF is authorized to receive up to $900 million a year, but funding for land and water protection has been low at best, having been diverted elsewhere by Congress despite increases in energy development.

The LWCF has not only protected Montana’s natural treasures such as the Rocky Mountain Front and Bighorn Canyon; it has enhanced our state’s economic and public health through development of public recreation facilities.


Building urban trails


While parks, trails and open space help define our state, they also help us live healthier lifestyles. Access to trails, ball fields, local parks and natural areas reduces stress, connects families and communities, and enhances the quality of life. Through my involvement with the Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council, I see the direct effect LWCF has in positively impacting our mission to promote a more healthy, livable and sustainable community here in Billings.

Currently, a majority of Americans support full funding for LWCF to preserve outdoor spaces. Nearly 80 percent of Montanans support directing drilling fees to fully fund LWCF to protect national parks and create local recreation opportunities.

The LWCF has already positively impacted Montana communities. So far, 1,200 LWCF state assistance grants have benefited state and community parks across the state, supporting local recreation and public health.

Here in Billings, we have plenty to show from LWCF funding. Pictograph Cave State Park Visitors Center, the Billings Downtown Skate Park and Lockwood School Outdoor Recreation Area are all products of LWCF funding.

While the city continues to expand the Heritage Trail System and create connections between existing trails, the LWCF provides another great example of an opportunity for funding. As area groups such as BikeNet work to promote trails and raise funds for the expansion of trails, resources such as LWCF aid in these efforts. Thanks to LWCF funding, the Descro Park Trail became a key part to the ever-expanding trail network that BikeNet is working hard to support. With a fully funded program, the LWCF could help continue this momentum for Billings’ parks and trails.

We are fortunate to have two U.S. senators who understand the importance of recreation and preserving our outdoor heritage.


Baucus bill


Sen. Max Baucus, an early and vocal supporter of this effort, was an original co-sponsor of the Land and Water Conservation Authorization and Funding Act of 2009. This bill will give us a chance to confirm our commitment to preserving Montana’s natural, recreational, and cultural resources and heritage through federal investment in parks, trails, refuges and forests.

Please join me in thanking our elected officials for their support of the LWCF and in urging them to pursue legislation to fully fund it. Not only will it ensure that we protect Montana’s most precious and valuable resource — our outdoors — but it will help us continue to build strong, healthy communities.

Nash Emrich of Billings is president of BikeNet and vice chairman of Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council.