Business owners, Tester push for conservation fund’s reauthorization as deadline nears

Southwest Montana’s Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge is bounded by high mountains, wildflower filled meadows, grasslands, marshes and forests. It was protected, in part, by the Land and Water Conservation Fund. (U.S. Department of Interior)

Without direct action by Congress, the Land and Water Conservation Fund will cease to exist on Sept. 30 – and with it, a program that has invested in 42,000 projects nationwide that expanded public access and recreation while preserving ecosystems.

Montana Sen. Jon Tester has issued repeated calls to action – not only for Congress to permanently reauthorize the program and to fully fund it. He’s introduced legislation that would accomplish both those goals, and his voice has been joined by those of hundreds of business owners from Western states.

Reauthorization of the fund “used to be a slam dunk,” Tester said in a telephone call. But there are individuals and groups “working every day to transfer our public lands into private hands,” and they have muddied the waters, or worse, for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

“Without reauthorization, we’ll lose the tool that Montanans have used to provide access to nearly 70 percent of the fishing sites and thousands of acres of wild places in our state,” he said.

And it’s not just a conservation issue, said outdoor-related business owners in Montana, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico who financed a new poll showing the economic power of open and accessible lands.

Ten of those business men and women talked with reporters to emphasize the impact of LWCF projects on their bottom lines – and the harm that will come to their and other businesses if the program is not reauthorized and fully funded.

“LWCF is arguably the most successful conservation program in our nation’s history to protect the great outdoors, whether we are talking about wilderness areas, mountain ranges, fishing access sites, or a city park,” said Marne Hayes, executive director of Business for Montana’s Outdoors in Bozeman. “We know that protected public lands are a big reason people come to live and work in Montana, and that the outdoors either directly or indirectly shapes their businesses.

“In the West, we have our outdoors as an economic advantage over other regions in attracting talent, and this poll shows that business owners count on programs like LWCF to keep those assets protected.”

The poll asked the opinion of 822 Western business owners about the impact of public lands on their state’s economy and attracting high-level employees, the impact of LWCF on business and industry statewide and attracting talent, and reauthorization and full funding of LWCF.

Here’s one notable stat from the results: Fifty-one percent of the business owners said they are Republicans, to 32 percent Democrat.

Yet they were overwhelming supportive – across the party liens – of reauthorization and full funding for LWCF.

Among the poll results:

  • Eighty-two percent said Congress should reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fundand provide ongoing, long-term funding. Support was high across all four states included in the polls: Colorado at 85 percent, Montana 79 percent, Nevada 84 percent, and New Mexico 81 percent.
  • Extending across all four states, nearly eight in 10 business owners believe programs like LWCF help their state’s economy.
  • Seventy-three percent of business owners believepublic lands and the increased access provided by LWCF and other programs that expand access to public lands help their business recruit and retain high-level employees.

Said Beau Kiklis, organizer, Colorado Outdoor Business Alliance, “LWCF promotes healthy environments, healthy economies, and healthy communities, all of which are vital factors to large and small businesses setting up shop and thriving in Colorado.”

For 50 years, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has been the “premier source of funding for the acquisition and management of federal, state and local public lands nationwide,” said xxx, in Bozeman.

“It is the only federal program devoted to the continued conservation of our national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, wilderness, civil war battlefields, and the development and preservation of state and local parks,” she said.

Its funding, Tester emphasized during a conference call with Montana reporters, comes from a royalty fees paid by oil and gas companies to drill offshore.

It doesn’t cost taxpayers a cent, he said. “It’s a pretty big deal.”

“Whether it’s pristine elk habitat in Central Montana, fishing access on the Missouri, or soccer fields in your city park, LWCF has expanded access to the outdoor spaces that make our state special,” Tester said.

As he has all summer, the senator stressed that his bill would permanently reauthorize the fund – but that authorization alone would not be enough.

“Too often, LWCF lacks the funding needed to accomplish its mission,” the senator said. “Instead, lawmakers raid it in search of cash to pay for other things, or try to defund it to further their misguided goal of selling off our public lands to the highest bidders.”

In fact, since 1978, LWCF has only been fully funded twice, according to Tester. “That’s 38 years of missed conservation opportunities. That’s why I’m fighting to fund LWCF at the fullest level possible – and holding Washington accountable.”