Montana congressman, governor keep trying to defund popular conservation and access programs

May 4, 2023

By Rachael Hamby

Despite the tremendous bipartisan popularity of outdoor recreation, access, and conservation in Montana, Congressman Matt Rosendale has introduced four bills (H.R.2153, H.R.2158, H.R.2169, and H.R.2207) that propose to defund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

First passed by Congress in 1964, LWCF uses royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling to pay for conservation and recreation projects around the country, including in Montana. After being underfunded for several decades, LWCF was permanently and fully funded in 2020 through the Great American Outdoors Act. Both of Montana’s U.S. Senators, Jon Tester and Steve Daines, were original cosponsors of the bill, and then-Congressman (now Governor) Greg Gianforte voted for the bill that President Donald Trump signed into law. Though this was before he was elected to Congress, Rosendale himself praised the bill at the time in a campaign press release and states his support for “protecting and expanding access to our public lands” on his campaign website.

Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, U.S. Forest Service
Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, U.S. Forest Service

LWCF projects can include acquisitions of land from willing sellers in order to provide or improve access to public lands and to hunting and fishing opportunities which are deeply important to Montana voters. Expanding access can mean, for example, acquiring a site to develop a fishing access point. According to Mountain Mamas executive director Becky Edwards, 75 percent of the state’s river access sites were acquired using LWCF funds that Rosendale proposes to eliminate moving forward. Projects already in the works in Montana would be impacted by this sudden retraction of funding.

Dave Chadwick, former executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, warned that Rosendale’s legislation “would pull the rug from underneath public land protection projects that have been years in the making, like the [Bureau of Land Management’s] ongoing effort to expand public access along the Blackfoot River and the Forest Service’s work to secure inholdings in the Lolo and Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forests.”

Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Rosendale’s proposed bills would take this funding away from the National Park Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and U.S. Forest Service by placing a “limitation on the availability of funds” for voluntary public land acquisitions: Rosendale’s bills order that the amount of money for these programs for fiscal year 2024 “may not exceed $0.” The Bureau of Land Management’s funds for voluntary public land acquisitions would be limited to just over $28 million, just over a third of what the agency had been planning for based on LWCF being funded as Congress directed. The ostensible goal of these bills is to help balance the federal budget — a rationale that makes no sense since LWCF is a budget-neutral program offset by a specific revenue source, and the amount of supposed savings are insignificant compared to the federal deficit.

“It’s hard to imagine four bills more out of touch with the people of Montana than the ones Rosendale just introduced,” said Montana Conservation Voters communications director Anthony Licata. Hard, but not impossible — last year, Rosendale signed on as a co-sponsor of an unlikely-to-pass bill that would have removed an excise tax on guns and ammunition. Better known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, this program directs those tax revenues to state fish and wildlife agencies and is popular among hunters and conservation advocates in Montana and across the West. For Montanans, Rosendale’s support for unpopular bills that are unlikely to become law is concerning. “We have a member of Congress who either wants to defund conservation or is not serious about passing legislation, and both are problematic,” said Chadwick, the former Montana Wildlife Federation executive director.

Glacier National Park, National Park Service
Glacier National Park, National Park Service

Rosendale is not the only Montana lawmaker who has publicly praised conservation only to turn around and take anti-conservation actions once in office. In 2020, Montana voters passed Initiative 190 (I-190) with 57 percent voting in favor. The initiative initiative legalized recreational marijuana and directed tax revenues to conservation priorities. In the next two legislative sessions, Governor Gianforte (who said in a statement that he “proudly supported” permanently and fully funding LWCF when he was in Congress) proposed raiding these popular conservation programs and redirecting those funds to other unrelated purposes, ignoring the wishes expressed by voters in 2020 and affirmed by the state legislature in 2021. A 2022 University of Montana poll found that 82 percent of Montana voters want to continue dedicating marijuana tax revenues to state parks, trails, access, and wildlife habitat, and only 12 percent agree with Gianforte that these funds should be redirected to other purposes.

“A vast number of Montanans believe in robustly funding our public lands and access and expect the governor to back up his words with actions,” said Marne Hayes, director of Business for Montana’s Outdoors. “It’s time for Governor Gianforte to honor his word, Montanans’ vote, and the Legislature’s law and do what it takes to secure full and permanent funding for the public access and wildlife habitat we all depend on.”