Polson tour drives home importance of federal funding

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  • A hiker walks up a grassy hillside on Wild Horse Island State Park in May 2018. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake FILE)

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    Deer graze at Wild Horse Island State Park on Sept. 19, 2019. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake FILE)

  • A hiker walks up a grassy hillside on Wild Horse Island State Park in May 2018. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake FILE)

  • 1

    Deer graze at Wild Horse Island State Park on Sept. 19, 2019. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake FILE)

What would Wild Horse Island look like without the Land and Water Conservation Fund?

The 2,164-acre island is home to bighorn sheep, wild horses, mule deer, bald eagles, birds of prey, songbirds, waterfowl and even the occasional mountain lion that trekked there when Flathead Lake was frozen.

What Wild Horse Island isn’t home to, is people.

Outdoors lovers of all ages enjoy the island, its secluded coves, its many opportunities to boat, hike, watch wildlife, fish, picnic and swim.

Without the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the odds are low that it would be anything other than just another chunk of ground pockmarked by residences with little or no public access.

On Wednesday in Polson, the Montana Wilderness Association hosted a field tour to illustrate why the Fund is so important, both to citizens and to businesses.

From 1977 to 1984, $913,773 from the Fund went into buying Wild Horse Island so it could be turned into a state park. Today, that land purchase stands as a shining example of what the Land and Water Conservation Fund was intended to protect, but there are thousands of other examples of projects that have benefited from it, advocates point out.

According to the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition, the Fund was created by Congress in 1964 as a bipartisan commitment to safeguard natural areas, water resources and our cultural heritage, and to provide recreation opportunities to all Americans.

National parks, as well as national wildlife refuges, national forests, rivers and lakes, community parks, trails, and ball fields in all 50 states were set aside for Americans to enjoy, thanks to federal funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Revenue from one natural resource — offshore oil and gas — was meant to support the conservation of other precious resources — land and water. Every year, $900 million in royalties paid by energy companies drilling for oil and gas on the Outer Continental Shelf are put into this fund.

It is rarely fully funded, but a bill to do so sits in the U.S. Senate.

Senate Bill 1081 would, beginning in fiscal year 2020, permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund. It was introduced last April by West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin.

The measure has received wide support by Republicans and Democrats, including Montana Senators Steve Daines and Jon Tester.

In November, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted for full and mandatory funding for the program. But there hasn’t been any action since.

Wednesday’s tour in Polson began at O’Malley Park, home to a pair of ball fields where youth play T-ball through Legion baseball.

From 2000 to 2005, the complex received $34,800 for redevelopment.

“It’s one of the best fields in the area,” said Pat Nowlen, Polson’s director of Parks and Recreation. “During the summer, these fields are used every day by up to 100 kids. It’s really important to give the kids something to do which helps keep them out of trouble.”

The city leased the larger ball field to the Mission Valley Mariners Legion team at no cost. Team members do the maintenance on the field, but it, along with the T-ball field doesn’t have any money set aside for improvements or other necessary work, according to Nowlen. He said they’d like to have a parking lot, install drainage and lights.

The city is also seeking funding to expand the skate park and to build new pickleball courts.

Nowlen said because of donations from the community the city built three courts.

“They are always full and very popular, so we’d like to build some more,” Nowlen said.

Nowlen also trumpeted the virtues of the 27-hole Polson Bay Golf Course.

It received $30,381 from the Fund in 1975, which helped its development.

“We now have the No. 1 junior golf program in the country and one-third of the city’s taxes come from properties surrounding the course, so the benefits are clear,” Nowlen said.

Sites in Lake County have received approximately $1.6 million for 30 projects including the development of fishing access sites, local and state parks, playgrounds, tennis courts, baseball fields and even sewage improvement projects at the aforementioned locations.

The tour included a stop at Salish Point, a joint project between the city of Polson and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Business owner Wendi Arnold, who operates Flathead Lake Cheese Co. with her husband, Joe, said Salish Point is a major draw for tourists and that’s good for business.

“I really love what they’ve done here,” Arnold said. “It used to be an area where people dumped stuff, but now there is a designated swimming area, people can fish and it’s really been great for business.”

Arnold said the cheese company is open seven days a week from May through October and 60% to 75% of their business is tourism-based, some of which comes from tourists who use Salish Point.

The project received $17,317 from the Land and Water Conservation Fund in 2007, which helped make it an attraction as opposed to an eyesore.

Nowlen said Polson has a small tax base, which affects how much it can do without federal money.

“We have less than 5,000 people who live here permanently, but in the summer, we have about 14,000 here and it’s hard to accommodate them,” Nowlen said. “The parks are very popular in the summer. About 80% of their use is by out of town people.”

He laid out his hopes and reasons for why he wants to see the Fund fully funded.

“If it’s fully funded, it allows us to better plan for the future,” Nowlen said. “It would change our long-range planning. We could move our time-frames up for getting things done and we would be able to increase staff for planning, budget for grant writing and provide a better quality of maintenance.”

With impeachment proceedings underway against President Donald Trump there is no legislative business during impeachment.

Katie Schoettler, Daines’ communication director, indicated there is no time-frame for the bill to be voted on by the Senate.

If the bill isn’t signed into law in this legislative session it will have to be reintroduced during the following congressional session.

Scott Shindledecker may be reached at 758-4441 or sshindledecker@dailyinterlake.com.

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