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Andy Martin fishing access

Andy Martin fishing access

It appeared for a few hours Wednesday night like the Senate was going to deliver the public lands bill outdoor groups had demanded by Christmas.

Western state lawmakers, Republican and Democrat, were whipping votes for a last-minute vote before leaving for Christmas. But the deal fell apart in spectacular fashion with architects of the lands package scolding Utah Sen. Mike Lee for objecting to the bill.

Lee’s objection prevented a vote that Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said would have easily approved a lands deal that permanently reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act. Montana Sen. Jon Tester faulted Lee for killing the Gateway Act, which the Democrat Tester authored. A companion bill in the House was authored by Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte.

“I’m very confident, had we had the opportunity to have voted here tonight, you would have seen this lands package pass the United States Senate by at least a two-to-one margin,” Daines said from the Senate floor Wednesday. “It would have gone to the House, it would have passed. It would have gone to President Trump’s desk and I’m confident he would have signed it. The reason we have been fighting for permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund is because of what happened right here tonight. It’s the uncertainty of this institution, where 98 senators can say, ‘Let’s move ahead for a vote,’ two senators say ‘no’ and we’re unable to have a vote tonight.”

Republican Sens. Lee and Rand Paul, R-Ky., were the only two lawmakers who objected to a lands bill vote, requested by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

From the outside, it appeared that a lands bill was close to passing not just at the last minute, but all day Wednesday as senators whipped votes, said Amy Lindholm, of the LWCF Coalition who was in D.C. lobbying for public lands groups from across country, including the Montana Outdoor Business Roundtable.

“They were within a razor’s edge all day. There was furious negotiating going on just off the Senate floor and you could see deep discussion as they worked through several senators who put holds on it for different issues,” Lindholm said.

Lee’s request was that two words be added to the bill excluding Utah from further creation of national monuments, Lindholm said. The Utah senator’s office didn't answer phones Thursday.

Sens. Daines; Tester; Murkowski; Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; Cory Gardner, R-Colo.; and Richard Burr, R-N.C. were the core group trying to get a vote on a public lands package, Lindholm said. Murkowski closed the evening saying she had been assured the lands package would be one of the first bills taken up in January.

“The Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act has been years in the making and now Senate passage is in sight,” Tester said in a press release. “I will hold Congress accountable to our agreement and make sure that they deliver on their promise to permanently protect the doorstep of Yellowstone Park from mining that will hurt our economy and harm our clean water.”

The Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act bans mining on federal land within the Paradise Valley north of Yellowstone National Park. The Land and Water Conservation Fund pays 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.

“It’s not a surprise to people in the United States Senate that it’s December and people are voting on a lands package,” Cantwell said. “When you have these bills that deal with water, that deal with public lands, that deal with giving federal land back to communities so they can improve their communities and yes, designating some special places so they can be preserved for the public, yes, not all of your colleagues care about the details of that and you are never going to get the leader in control of the United States Senate to give you floor time on that bill. So, every December we’re here with a lands package.”

Rolled into the lands package were bills assuring that mountain towns have access to drinking water, and money for new technology for forest fire fighting and money for studying climate change, Cantwell said. It will have to wait until 2019.

In Montana, left-leaning conservation groups blamed Daines for the bill not passing.

“Sen. Daines claims to support Montana's public lands but failed to do so in Congress yesterday," Rick Potts, Interim Director of the Montana Conservation Voters Education Fund, in a Thursday press release. "Montanans expected our senator, whose party controls Congress, to convince his colleagues to stand up and fight for a program that’s essential to our outdoor way of life."

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The group Businesses for Montana’s Outdoors blamed toxic partisanship for the LWCF’s failure.

“Business for Montana’s Outdoors represents over 200 members who are critical in fueling Montana’s $7.1 billion outdoor recreation economy, and the 71,000 related jobs,” said Marne Hayes, the group’s executive director in a Thursday press release. We could not be more disappointed that a lack of leadership and toxic partisanship has been allowed to hijack our nation’s most successful conservation tool, the Land and Water Conservation Fund.”

The Nature Conservancy pinned the bill's failure on Lee.

“It is tremendously frustrating and just plain wrong that America’s most important conservation program remains expired as Congress adjourns for the year. Despite huge bipartisan majorities supporting permanent reauthorization, Congress has dropped the ball on the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” said Tom Cors, Director of Government Relations for Lands at The Nature Conservancy, in a press release. “By allowing the objections of a single senator to derail this overarching priority for America’s families, communities, and local economies, Senate leadership has left LWCF and the communities that rely on it high and dry.”

In the House, Gianforte blasted leaders both for not passing a lands package ahead of time, and for not appropriating $5 billion for a southern border wall, which Trump insisted Thursday he would shut down the government if he didn’t get.

“Montanans didn’t send me here to shut down the government, but they also didn’t send me here to let their priorities die in a lame duck session that is every part lame,” Gianforte said on the House floor. “I stand here still, urging this body to take up a public lands package and to secure the border. A public lands package should include permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. A public lands package should include the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act that permanently conserves public land in Paradise Valley.”

Gianforte also called for recognition of the Little Shell Tribe of the Chippewa Indians. However, Little Shell recognition was later scuttled in the Senate by Sen. Lee.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.