Federal fund in limbo

A little-known federal program deserves credit for funding the Rattlesnake Greenway, the restrooms at McCormick Park, 70 percent of Montana's fishing access sites, and much more. The program, called the Land and Water Conservation Fund, or LWCF, started as a federal initiative that helps federal, state and local agencies purchase land to promote recreation and wildlife conservation. Since its inception in 1964, Montana has received more than $400 million in federal funds from the program.

Now LWCF is under attack. The House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee proposed eliminating all funding for the program in its fiscal year 2014 budget, leaving supporters to rally for its survival.

Last week, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission passed a resolution in support of LWCF, stating that Congress should fully fund the program "the full amount of $900 million per year from offshore mineral leasing royalty without diversion to other programs."

Congress originally created LWCF as a deficit-neutral trust fund that would use royalties from federal offshore drilling leases to fund $900 million a year in conservation projects across the United States, according to Dave Chadwick, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation. Over the years, lawmakers raided the fund to pay for other projects and LWCF eventually got rolled into the annual appropriations process.

"Conservation work takes time and what makes the LWCF unique is that it is supposed to provide a sustained flow of funding that is not subject to the annual vagaries of the political process," says Chadwick. "It has achieved really great things, but we still need to permanently authorize the fund and take it out of the annual appropriations process as intended."

Sen. Max Baucus, who has long said he supports LWCF, wants to do just that. Earlier this year he proposed Senate Bill 338, which would permanently direct funds to LWCF and insulate it from the political whims of Congress. According to spokeswoman Kathy Weber, Baucus has made passage of the bill a top priority before he leaves office at the end of his term.

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