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Rosendale proposes defunding conservation land programs

by DARRELL EHRLICK Daily Montanan
| May 19, 2023 7:00 AM

As Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives craft a budget that cuts spending and lifts the debt ceiling that will allow the country to avoid a potentially calamitous economic implosion, Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana is proposing to cut all funding for the Land Conservation and Wildlife Fund.

Rosendale, a Republican representing Montana’s eastern Congressional district, co-introduced a series of four bills in the House recently, along with three other Republicans including Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, that would eliminate funding for land acquisition in four different federal programs, including in Montana.

It would decimate the Land and Water Conservation Fund as well as ignore a provision in the 2020 Great American Outdoors Act.

The bills, House Resolutions 2153, 2158, 2169 and 2207 would prohibit the use of the popular and often-used Land and Water Conservation Fund to stop land acquisition by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Park Service.

That translates to the United States halting more than $390 million in funding for voluntary land acquisition, a tool many conservation groups in Montana and beyond have used to acquire land for public access and tourism.

“Because our nation is $31 trillion in debt, I’ve worked with my colleagues to identify areas to reduce spending across the federal government while protecting Social Security and Medicare benefits,” Rosendale said in a statement provided to the Daily Montanan. “The legislation that I cosponsored only prevents the Land and Water Conservation Fund from being used for land acquisitions – it does not impact the maintenance of parks and facilities.”

The move drew immediate criticism from conservation and outdoors groups, which pointed to previous bipartisan support from U.S. Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester, as well as Greg Gianforte and former President Donald J. Trump.

Outdoor expert and former Montana Wildlife Federation executive David Chadwick said the move by Rosendale is stunning because it is so out-of-step with Montana.

LWCF and the funding that goes along with it has the support of more than 75% of Montanans, something Chadwick said cuts across both sides of the political spectrum.

“As a Montanan, we have a member of Congress who either wants to defund conservation or is not serious about passing legislation and both are problematic,” Chadwick said.

Instead, he criticized Rosendale’s record both as a state and federal politician for favoring oil and gas exploration at the expense of conservation.

Marne Hayes, director of Business for Montana’s Outdoors, said counties in Montana that are tied to the state’s outdoor economies are showing even more expansive job growth, for example Gallatin County, where there’s been a 54% growth. She credits more access, more outdoor land and more tourism for part of the historic growth.

“When people come to Montana, what are we doing to ensure they have access?” she said, pointing out that 75% of all fishing access sites in Montana have been acquired and built through LWCF funding. “There are a lot of ways he could have reduced spending without zeroing it out.”

Funding from the LWCF has been used to improve access to numerous fishing locations throughout the state.

The funding was also used as part of land acquisitions from the 1.5-million acre Blackfoot River Watershed and thousands of acres of frontcountry in areas around Missoula in the Lolo National Forest. The U.S. Forest Service has also put the LWCF funding to work in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and the Custer-Gallatin National Forests.

“If the message is that large land acquisition is unnecessary, then there’s a level of misunderstanding about what these funds do and their deep level of impact,” Hayes said.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund was created in 1964, directing $900 million in federal revenue from offshore oil drilling into conservation programs each year.

However, even though legislation was passed directing the funding, the congressional appropriation process often diverted those funds into other uses for nearly 50 years until the Great American Outdoors Act in 2020, which garnered the support of Tester, Daines, Gianforte (who was in Congress). That act permanently stopped the diversion and was signed into law by Trump.

Rosendale’s proposal would zero out that spending.

Last year, Rosendale also drew the ire of conservation groups and outdoor enthusiasts as he moved to defund another popular longtime federal program that leverages federal taxes on gun sales and ammunition and puts those funds toward wildlife habitat.

“Rosendale’s bills are an affront to Montana hunters and anglers who fought for decades to secure the lasting investments for public lands,” said Frank Szollosi, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation. “These short-sighted bills ignore the interest of Montanans who depend on access to the outdoors for their quality of life and jeopardizes future efforts to conserve our cherished fish, wildlife, and their habitat.”

Rosendale’s support of conservation programs has been mixed and conflicted. As he was running for Congress in 2020, he praised the LWCF, saying it provided “critical access” for residents and tourists and noted that it also helped support Montana’s outdoors economy.

However, Rosendale has also criticized the federal government for owning national forest and BLM land.

“It’s hard to imagine four bills more out of touch with the people of Montana than the ones Rosendale just introduced,” said Anthony Licata, communications director of Montana Conservation Voters.