MISSOULA — Montana’s conservationists praised the Biden administration’s move on Thursday to restore federal money for land and recreation conservation.
The Department of the Interior announced Thursday morning it had revoked a Nov. 9 order from former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s that had put restrictions on the use of Land and Water Conservation Fund money to buy public land.
“The Land and Water Conservation Fund has been crucial to protecting public lands, conserving wildlife habitats and improving access to outdoor recreation. Interior’s actions today affirm our support for one of America’s most successful and popular conservation programs,” said Shannon A. Estenoz, principal deputy assistant secretary – Fish and Wildlife and Parks.
“We look forward to further strengthening this successful program to ensure that all communities – from hikers and sportsmen to urban and underserved communities – have access to nature and the great outdoors.”
Within a few hours of the announcement, conservationists from the Montana Wildlife Federation, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Montana Conservation Voters, the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership were praising the Biden administration.
“Today’s actions clearly demonstrate that the Biden Administration, and their wise choice to lead the department, Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico, will do the right things for Montana hunters and anglers and our outdoor recreation economies,” said Alec Underwood, Montana Wildlife Federation federal conservation campaigns director in a statement.
In August, conservationists had celebrated the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, which permanently allocated the Land and Water Conservation Fund with $900 million annually. That’s the amount the fund was supposed to receive from offshore oil and gas royalties since its creation in 1964.
But Congress always allocated far less to the fund, shunting the rest of the royalty money to other programs. So having a full $900 million to use every year meant more parks could be built and land preserved.
Montana has benefitted immensely from the LWCF over the past half-century. The money has helped purchase more than 160 fishing access sites, more than 800 community parks statewide and preserved more than 180,000 acres of working forest lands, among others.
Last fall, land agencies nationwide submitted several projects for funding consideration in the fiscal year 2022. For example, the U.S. Forest Service submitted a Missoula County project to buy former Weyerhaeuser Company land in the Deep Creek drainage.
But then Trump lost the election, and Bernhardt issued his order giving state and local jurisdictions the authority to block federal land acquired with Land and Water Conservation Fund money. Bernhardt also said the priority would be on purchasing land for the National Park Service or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Underwood said Bernhardt’s order would have allowed local officials to block projects that expand access to new lands for hunting, fishing, hiking and other recreational activities while putting an unnecessary burden on private landowners.
In the case of the Missoula County project, the Missoula County commission was in unanimous support, but Montana’s governor could have said no.
The Backcountry Hunters and Anglers called Bernhardt out in November, saying it showed the administration only supported public lands when it was politically advantageous. On Thursday, executive Director Land Tawney thanked the Biden administration for restoring the bipartisan intent of the Great American Outdoors Act.
“BHA looks forward to working with the Biden administration to ensure that crucial LWCF funds are deployed in ways that will open up public recreational and access opportunities and sustain important populations of fish and wildlife, continuing a national outdoors legacy that is unique the world over,” Tawney said.
In November, Sen. Jon Tester also called for Bernhardt to rescind the order, saying it “undercuts what a landowner can do with their own private property, and creates unnecessary, additional levels of bureaucracy that will hamstring future land acquisition through the Land and Water Conservation Fund.”
Whitney Tawney, Montana Conservation Voters executive director, said it was good that the Biden administration removed the unnecessary government regulations on the LWCF.
“We thank President Biden and Senator Jon Tester for their vision and commitment to push back against anti-public land zealots who continue to undermine Montana’s outdoor heritage and way of life,” Whitney Tawney said in a statement.