Public land

Supporters of community redevelopment, wildlife and public lands, energy efficiency and agriculture spoke out in Helena Tuesday against budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration.

Clean Air Montana, a coalition of organizations pushing for conservation policy and climate action, held a press conference Tuesday morning as part of a three-city tour. Helena City Commissioner Andres Halladay, Dave Chadwick with Montana Wildlife Federation, Diego Rivas with Northwest Energy Coalition and Chris Christiaens with Montana Farmers Union, pointed to programs on the chopping block they say would jeopardize aspects of Montana’s economy and quality of life.

President Trump ran in part on a message of bolstering the U.S. economy by cutting regulations. His first six months have brought a host of executive orders aimed at fulfilling that promise, including repealing certain environmental regulations and reviewing national monuments.

The president’s agenda has also included a proposed budget prioritizing defense spending and cuts to other agencies, including natural resource managers and environmental regulators. The moves have been applauded by champions of shrinking government but staunchly opposed by the conservation community.

Halladay’s comments centered on the EPA’s Brownfield program, which offers grants for industrial cleanup that the city has leveraged for redevelopment projects. Brownfield would be cut under the Trump budget.

Revitalization efforts in Helena's Sixth Ward neighborhood, with demolition and cleanup of the Caird Industrial Works site, offered a prime example of the impact of that funding, he said.

The site, located at the intersection of Montana and Helena avenues, required about $400,000 in environmental cleanup with about half coming from Brownfield. Purchase of the property by the Montana Business Assistance Connection was funded in part through the city’s revolving loan program. The site was purchased by developer Alan Nicholson last year, who said at the time development could take years.

“We’re banking on using that site as the cornerstone of economic development,” Halladay said, emphasizing that additional cleanup is likely needed in the area.

The city is working with Helena College and the Montana Department of Transportation on solving access issues to the site, which has been vacant for more than two years, he continued. The loss of Brownfield funding means more competition for other funding sources and losing a familiar program to the city.

The Great Northern Town Center, another area of Helena that received Brownfield funding, is now the best-producing tax area of the city for its size, Halladay said.

Chadwick called cuts to land management agencies and conservation funding “a sad reality” of the proposed budget. Cuts to Land and Water Conservation Fund, the National Park Service, EPA, Department of the Interior and Forest Service will have direct impacts on land management in Montana.

“There’s no other way around it, this (budget) is eviscerating natural resource management,” Chadwick said.

Even as Congress restores some funding and negotiations continue, cuts are still proposed, he added. That means a direct impact on Montana’s recreation economy and environmental cleanup, but also less evident impacts from climate change.

Chadwick does not believe the cuts are reflective of what voters wanted in light of support for outdoor recreation and a clean environment.

“We’re setting up land and water agencies to fail,” he said.

Rivas works on energy efficiency programs including the Weatherization Assistance Program through the Department of Energy. The program slated for cuts offers weatherization to low income qualifiers, updating features such as windows, furnaces and hot water heaters.

“This impacts the most vulnerable in our communities,” Rivas said, adding that rural Montana has seen major funding through the program.

Even at current levels the program faces a backlog of up to eight years, meaning the demand is there. Weatherization saves individuals money, but also overall savings and reduced emissions, Rivas said.

Another energy program proposed for cuts called the Low Income Energy Assistance Program helps low income qualifiers pay energy bills during periods of high energy usage, such as winter heating bills. Rivas characterized the double cuts to low income programs as “cruel.”

Rivas defended the role of government in offering the assistance programs, saying the program ultimately benefits everyone involved and assists the vulnerable segments of society.

The two topics of most importance in terms of agriculture is talk on the upcoming Farm Bill and climate change, Christiaens said.

Clashes over proposed cuts to food stamps through SNAP, typically included in the Farm Bill, could also jeopardize the long-term viability of insurance and other programs for farmers if a bill does not pass. Without sustainable programs the industry will struggle to replace aging producers, he said.

Farmers are also seeing weather extremes begin to become the norm, and with it concerns of cuts to climate research, Rivas said.

“We see these extremes across the state and climate change is here, absolutely. It’s not the time to be cutting funding,” he said.

When asked about rectifying Trump’s strong support in rural Montana with his organization’s opposition of the president’s budget, Rivas said the cuts came unexpectedly to much of the agricultural community that supported many of Trump the candidate's stated policy positions.

The goal and timing of Tuesday’s press conference and events Monday in Butte and Missoula is to let Montana’s congressional delegation know about the concerns while they are home on recess, said Adam Pimley, organizer of the Helena event.

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin

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