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Daines Edith Peak

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., inspects former Stimson Lumber Co. land recently added to the Lolo National Forest with Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation CEO Kyle Weaver on Friday. Cooperation between RMEF, the Lolo Forest and Stimson allowed the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund to pay for the land acquisition north of Frenchtown below Edith Peak, seen in the background.

For half a century, the Land Water Conservation Fund returned some of the profits of development on federal public lands to the preservation, maintenance and accessibility of other public lands.

But on Sept. 30, the LWCF expired. Despite strong bipartisan support, this widely popular program was allowed to die, another casualty of a dysfunctional Congress and White House. Congress and President Trump must right this wrong, and they should do so before the lame duck session adjourns for Christmas.

Last week, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, including both of Montana’s senators, Steve Daines and Jon Tester called for permanent reauthorization and full funding of the LWCF. We agree and challenge the senators to insist that this urgent program be restored and funded at the level promised when the law was enacted in 1965. Today, the annual funding amount should be $900 million.

That’s a lot of money, but a necessary amount for the challenge of caring for the public lands that are our American heritage. Consider how Americans value their public lands:

  • Visitation has exploded in the past several years. We are loving our national parks to death with a million more visits per year to Yellowstone than the park saw just five years ago. Glacier has become so crowded there’s no place to park to hike Logan Pass.
  • Earlier this year, Gazette outdoor editor Brett French told Gazette readers about the potty problem: the tremendously expensive job of disposing of the waste deposited by crowds of visitors to Yellowstone and its neighboring national forests.
  • Millions of acres of public lands are virtually inaccessible because of checkerboard ownership patterns and lack of public right of way to public lands. The LWCF has helped provide that access with strategic land acquisitions and easements. In Montana alone, over 1 million acres of public land is not easily accessible to the public.
  • For many years, our national forests had little money to preserve the land, water and wildlife because they were required to spend the bulk of their budgets fighting wildfires.
  • Our public lands are the draw for the Montana’s multi-billion-dollar outdoor industry. Wilderness, parks, forests, rivers, lakes, mountains and plains bring hunters, hikers, anglers, campers, photographers and tourists to Montana and Wyoming.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, Montana’s outdoor economy generates $1.5 billion in wages and salaries, $5.8 billion in consumer spending, $403 million in state and local tax revenue, and supports 64,000 jobs.

Most important, public lands are essential to the quality of life that Montanans and Wyomingites value. People live and work in Montana because of proximity to wild lands for recreation, work and solitude.

As the LWCF has been in jeopardy this year, The Gazette has heard from many readers, including U.S. military veterans about the healing power of being in our great outdoors — on land that all of us Americans own. Our public lands are therapeutic for young and old. And there are more of us Americans, wanting more outdoor experience.

All 50 states, and nearly every county in the country has benefited from the LWCF. Over the years, Montana parks and other public lands have received about $580 million from LWCF. Many of Montana’s state fishing access were created with LWCF grants. State parks and city parks have benefited from LWCF. Nearly 70 percent of public fishing accesses in Montana were created with help from LWCF.

America’s national parks have more than $11 billion in maintenance backlogs. Montana state parks have millions in maintenance needs. Billings struggles every year to decide which city park will get the limited park dollars while other needs go unmet.

While campaigning for re-election, Rep. Greg Gianforte said : “I will continue being a strong advocate for increasing public access to our public lands, permanently reauthorizing LWCF, and fully funding it.”

A U.S. Senate committee has already approved a bill permanently reauthorizing and fully funding LWCF.

As Daines said last week, “This should not be a tough debate.”

Tester said LWCF is “the best conservation tool we have.”

However, the Trump administration proposed this year to nearly eliminate the conservation fund and slash its appropriation to a meager $10 million for the entire country for an entire year.

Congress must not let that happen. The royalties from tapping the public’s offshore natural resources should be used to keep America’s public lands natural and open to the public. Congress must act soon to restore and fully fund the LWCF.

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