Bipartisan conservation program facing deep cuts

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A view of Skeeko Bay and Flathead Lake from Wild Horse Island State Park on Thursday, Sept. 19. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

As part of President Trump’s budget proposal released Monday, the administration has requested a 16% decrease to the U.S. Department of Interior’s budget for the 2021 fiscal year. Proposed changes include prioritizing wildland fire risk mitigation and focusing on infrastructure needs on existing public lands. It also calls for sizable cuts, including one that would nearly eliminate the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

In a press release issued Monday, leaders of the longstanding conservation program described the president’s proposal as one that “flies in the face of extremely popular bipartisan legislation.” Trump’s budget request, which has no binding authority on how Congress will respond to the requests, wishes to cut funding for the program from $495 million in fiscal year 2020 to $14.7 million, or 97% in fiscal 2021.

“This proposal is outrageous and absurd, especially as Democrats and Republicans alike on Capitol Hill are working hard to fund LWCF fully and permanently, and as conservation and recreation demand across America continues to skyrocket,” said Jonathan Aster, a spokesman for the coalition for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, also known as LWCF.

The program does not use taxpayer dollars, and is instead funded using a portion of revenues from offshore oil and gas royalty payments. It 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.” Since its inception, the Fund’s state grants program alone has supported almost 42,000 projects totaling nearly $4 billion.

In Montana, bipartisan support for the Fund is widespread. Securing funding for the program has been a key focus for U.S. Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., who, in recent and separate press releases, said they still fully support the program and recognize all it has brought to the state.

Projects that have been funded by the program can be found in just about every corner of Montana.

For example, the Fund contributed nearly $1 million from 1977 to 1984 to the purchase of Flathead Lake’s Wild Horse Island that has since been turned into a state park. And just last month, the Montana Wilderness Association hosted a tour in Polson to illustrate why the Fund is so important. Focal points of that tour included projects that have received financial backing from the Fund such as the Salish Point project, and others that could use dollars down the road, such as the Mission Valley Mariners Legion’s ball field that is in need of improvements and maintenance.

While both Daines and Tester have expressed consistent support for the program, their responses to the administration’s proposed budget differs.

A press release from Tester’s office highlighted the requested 97% cut to LCWF, slashes to rural water projects, Indian water-rights settlements and other areas, saying the proposal “funds tax cuts for the wealthy” by “decimating out public lands and outdoor recreational economy,” among other means.

But a press release from Daines’ office urged Montanans and others to view the administration’s proposal as a starting point and elaborated the final funding figure for the program will be determined through the congressional appropriations process.

“The budget put forth by any Administration is simply a blueprint,” said Katie Schoettler, a spokesperson from Daines’ office. “Congress has the power of the purse and is the body that actually makes the decisions and funds the government. As a member of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Daines will continue fighting for funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and other important Montana priorities in the appropriations process.”

Daines’ press release also said comparing Trump’s $14.7 million proposal for 2021 to the $495 million in 2020 is not an “apples to apples” comparison because the $495 million figure was appropriated by Congress, not by the Trump Administration.

The president’s budget proposal is the first step in the annual budgeting process and details the administration’s fiscal goals and policy preferences. Congress then responds to those requests and creates a congressional budget resolution — usually filed by April 15 — which sets the total level of discretionary funding for the next fiscal year. From there, the discretionary funding moves to congressional appropriations, or committees that are responsible for determining program-by-program funding levels.

Trump historically has proposed low funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. But Congress has also later stepped in and raised those figures significantly higher.

Last year, Trump’s proposed funding for the program was extremely low, but Appropriations instead settled on $495 million, the highest appropriation for the Fund since 2003. The year prior, Congress appropriated $435 million for fiscal year 2019 and permanently reauthorized the Fund after the program expired in 2015.

Other entities haven’t hesitated to weigh in on Trump’s consistent proposals to slash the funds.

Dave Chadwick, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, said in a prepared statement, “in order to balance other parts of the federal budget, the Administration is proposing yet again to raid the Land and Water Conservation Fund — which isn’t even funded by tax dollars — and slash funding for discretionary wildlife conservation programs.”

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 748-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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