A long-delayed public lands bill with key Montana provisions easily passed a first vote in the U.S. Senate Tuesday.
Lawmakers voted 99 to 1 for a public lands package that included permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, plus a ban on new Paradise Valley gold mining outside Yellowstone National Park.
This week, the Senate passed a historic #PublicLandsPackage that includes my Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act & permanent reauthorization of #LWCF. These bills will help preserve Montana's outdoor way of life for generations to come. #mtpol— Senator Jon Tester (@SenatorTester) February 14, 2019
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The Land and Water Conservation Fund was the bill’s big ticket item. LWCF uses federal oil and gas royalties from offshore drilling to pay for conservation easements, public parks and land purchases. In Montana, the bill pays for at least 160 public fishing sites, wildlife conservation areas and public swimming pools.
Republican Steve Daines had pushed for permanently reauthorizing LWCF funding, which over the years has lapsed for several months at a time while waiting for congressional re-approval.
The bill's Yellowstone provision, created by Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, bans mining on federal land within the Paradise Valley north of Yellowstone National Park in Montana.
After a last-minute failure in December to get the public lands bill passed, conservation groups, including the LWCF Coalition, were hesitant to celebrate the early vote Tuesday. A final vote Thursday will be the real test.
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Should the bill pass, LWCF will still need work, said Dave Chadwick, Montana Wildlife Federation director. The offshore drilling royalties could pump as much as $900 million annually into the conservation program, but Congress has only committed the full amount twice since 1978.
LWCF funding proposed in Tuesday’s bill totaled $425 million.
“Permanent authorization of the program is one thing we need, but the other thing we need is to fully fund LWCF,” Chadwick said.
Even in years when reauthorization wasn’t in doubt, the funding for the program has been. Most recently, the Trump Administration zeroed out funding for LWCF, which was later restored by Congress, Chadwick said. During the George W. Bush Administration, funding appeared to increase, but several non-conservation measures were log-rolled into the executive’s LWCF budget request.
But permanent reauthorization of LWCF should help, Chadwick said. It’s the government programs that aren’t permanently reauthorized that are cut first by budget authors looking to cut corners.
Spokesmen for Tester and Daines said Tuesday that while the public lands package is unchanged from the one blocked by a single senator from a year-ending vote in December, amendments are likely. The Montana lawmakers are considering an amendment to add the Musselshell-Judith Rural Water System to the bill. The addition would help deliver clean water to thousands of people in central Montana.