JOHNSRUD PARK - The clear, cold waters of the Blackfoot River are a long way away from the oil-stained salt water of the Gulf of Mexico. But on Wednesday morning, U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., spent a few hours floating the Blackfoot in order to tout the possible silver lining to April's disastrous oil spill in the Gulf.

"With the spill in the Gulf, this is an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, let's make up for what we've lost,' " said Baucus, who is currently co-sponsoring a Senate bill that would provide $900 million per year to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal program that uses royalties from offshore oil and gas exploration to create fishing access sites, wildlife refuges, parks, trails and open spaces.

Officially billed as a Rally for River Access, Wednesday's float and subsequent press conference drew about 75 activists and professionals involved in river access issues in Montana. However, with Baucus' bill on tap for a vote after the Senate returns from its summer recess, the event was squarely focused on showing support for Baucus' legislative efforts.

"It's appropriate that we're celebrating this fund on the Blackfoot, as the Land and Water Conservation Fund has been the primary mechanism of supporting this river over the years, and that wouldn't have happened without the leadership of Senator Baucus," said Jeff Barber, director of government relations for the Nature Conservancy in Montana. "Montanans would have much fewer opportunities to get out and enjoy our environment but for the LWCF."

Created in 1964, the Land and Water Conservation Fund was, from its inception, supposed to receive up to $900 million per year to devote to conservation projects. However, the LWCF has only been fully funded in two years of its existence.

Last autumn, Baucus and Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico introduced the Land and Water Conservation Authorization and Funding Act, S.2747, a bill that would guarantee full funding of the LWCF annually, and reauthorize the fund, which was set to expire in 2015.

Then came the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, which precipitated the largest oil spill in American history. In the wake of the disaster, both the House of Representatives and the Senate have worked up bills aimed at holding oil companies responsible for the costs associated with oil spill cleanups and reparations to those who are injured or who lose their livelihood in such disasters.

In recent weeks, the bill sponsored by Baucus and Bingaman has been wrapped into those legislative efforts, and Baucus said on Wednesday he hopes the bill will be passed when the Senate returns from recess.

"We have a great opportunity here to push it over the top," said Baucus, noting that the rationale for devoting funds from offshore oil and gas leases to conservation efforts elsewhere makes simple sense.

"We're exploiting one resource, so at least that industry should pay for something like this," said Baucus.

Plenty of people who attended Wednesday morning's float agreed.

"Whether it's a local park, fishing access, or something like Montana Legacy Project, the Land and Water Conservation Fund is the essential tool to protect not only our lands but our sense of place and community and the things we want to leave to our children," said Maddy Pope, director of national outreach with the Trust for Public Land in Bozeman.

"These rivers are going to be here long after we're gone," added Mike Johnston, owner of Montana River Guides in Alberton and a lead instructor with the Whitewater Rescue Institute. "And they're going to be in a lot better shape because of the funding Max (Baucus) has secured for these rivers."

Reporter Joe Nickell can be reached at 523-5358, jnickell@missoulian.com or on NickellBag.com.



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