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Jack Ballard

JACK BALLARD

There’s a simple principle savvy citizens use when evaluating politicians: to understand their priorities, don’t pay attention to what they say or how they vote during the re-election cycle. Focus on the voting record from earlier in their term.

That’s an important thing for Montanans to remember about Sen. Steve Daines in all areas, but especially in relation to public lands, wildlife habitat and public access. His recent, re-election rhetoric doesn’t match his record. He’s currently crowing about his support for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a critical funding mechanism for conservation efforts on public lands. In Montana, the fund has spent more than $600 million in Glacier National Park, numerous national forests, wildlife refuges and other places to improve wildlife habitat, infrastructure and public access.

In 2015, not long after being elected to the U.S. Senate, Daines voted against the reauthorization of the LWCF. He then tried to cover this unpopular move by introducing a resolution stating that Congress “should” reauthorize the fund, but without requiring it to do so. In another early vote, the Senator supported a budget amendment allowing the federal government to sell federal lands outside of those contained in national parks.

Fast forward to 2018. On June 20 last year, after publicly professing support for the LWCF, Daines turned around and voted to reduce its funding. He has gone along with the current administration’s repeated attempts to hamstring the LWCF in its budget proposals. All of this slashes investment in wildlife habitat, conservation, cultural heritage projects and access to public lands from a fund that doesn’t cost taxpayers a penny. It’s supported by royalties from offshore gas and oil drilling. Daines will tell you he did the job when he voted to permanently authorize the LWCF with 91 of his colleagues in the Senate, but that’s an easy, hollow vote because authorization does not fund.

When I was a kid on my family’s ranch west of Three Forks, my dad occasionally allowed me and my older brothers and sisters to pile into the family car and drive to Bozeman to see a movie. Along with his “yes” on the outing came a couple of dollars from his wallet for my ticket. Without the money, no movie. Without adequate funding, LWCF projects languish even though Congress has “authorized” the fund. Since its inception in 1964, Congress has diverted more than $22 billion from the LWCF for other purposes. Daines, now in re-election mode, is touting his support for the LWCF, but he’s yet to actually vote for its full funding.

Where might that diverted money be spent?

We could start with updating and expanding infrastructure in places like Yellowstone National Park where women routinely wait in long lines to use the latrine during the summer. We really need to put additional resources into combating invasive plants and aquatic species that threaten wildlife habitat and the Montana way of life for hunters and anglers. Improvements are needed at river access points, trails and historical sites that lure millions of visitors to Montana every year. They support our $7.1 billion outdoor recreation economy, a job creator that provides fulfilling employment to tens of thousands of everyday Montana residents who love their work and the fact that they live in area code 406.

Don’t buy Daines’ re-election rhetoric on conservation. He’s had nearly a full term in the Senate without results and is now trying to tag another with talk. For me, this one’s the proverbial “no-brainer.” At first opportunity in the Senate, I’ll enthusiastically vote to permanently and fully fund the LWCF.

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Jack Ballard, of Red Lodge, is an outdoor writers whose focus is public lands. He is seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate 2020

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.