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Daines Edith Peak

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, inspects former Stimson Lumber Co. land recently added to the Lolo National Forest with Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation CEO Kyle Weaver in October. Cooperation between RMEF, the Lolo Forest and Stimson allowed the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund to pay for the land acquisition north of Frenchtown below Edith Peak, seen in the background.

FRENCHTOWN — On the way to celebrate a new public land addition below Edith Peak, Sen. Steve Daines said many similar projects may benefit from a huge potential change to the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Negotiations to reauthorize the fund, dubbed LWCF, in the lame duck session after the midterm elections could allow the program to get its full $900 million annual bank account permanently funded and filled.

Congress has authorized past versions of LWCF to accept that much money for public land acquisitions, but rarely provided anywhere close to the full amount.

Republican Daines said his Democratic colleague Sen. Jon Tester and Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte all support the LWCF measure and expect to work together to get it passed after the midterm elections. That will likely happen in an omnibus package of public lands bills the Senate and House must agree on when they reconvene in mid-November.

Earlier this month, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which Daines sits on, passed 40 such bills on for full Senate review.

But Montana's bipartisan cooperation could be hampered by President Donald Trump’s effort to unseat Tester, who is seeking reelection in November to a third term against Republican challenger Matt Rosendale.

On Thursday, Trump said Tester “led the Democratic mob” that tried to destroy the reputation of the White House doctor Trump had proposed to take over the Veterans’ Administration, adding Tester used “vicious,” “violent” and “disgraceful” tactics to get what he wanted. Daines joined Trump on stage for the rally and spoke in support of Rosendale to help carry out Trump’s agenda.

Win or lose, Tester will still have a crucial role in the lame duck session. Asked how he might work with Tester after standing with Trump’s attacks, Daines said he remained optimistic there was an appetite to get bills passed.

“We have these elections every two years,” Daines said. "Lame duck congresses happen every two years (and) history shows they’re a very productive time to move legislation, particularly on public lands. There’s an opportunity to get things done before the end of the year.”

Those sessions have resulted in breakthrough bills in the past, including the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act and North Fork Flathead Protection Act for Montana. Daines said this final session might also see passage of a new $11.6-billion measure to pay for backlogged maintenance in the National Park Service and the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, which would permanently block gold mining near Yellowstone National Park’s Gardiner entrance.

Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation government affairs director Mark Lambrecht said the National Park Service legislation may have opened the way for the permanent funding of LWCF. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has proposed creating a new revenue stream coming from energy development royalties on public lands to pay for the park infrastructure work. LWCF is funded from royalties paid from off-shore energy developments.

Daines added the National Park Service work could be viewed as “a first down payment on President Trump’s national infrastructure package.”

Back in western Montana, Friday’s trip above the Frenchtown Face along Six Mile Road led to a high mountain bench covered in golden tamarack trees. Several pickups with very young passengers signified the start of the two-day youth hunting season before Montana’s main big-game season opens on Saturday.

The Edith Peak project consolidated two parcels totaling 1,120 acres surrounded by about 25,000 acres of Forest Service land. That property in turn has a hop-scotched past.

The forests north of Frenchtown were checker-boarded at the turn of the 20th century to provide timberland for railroad development. In the 1990s, designation of the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area north of Missoula involved a swap of some railroad land there for Forest Service land in the Six Mile area around Edith Peak. Then the Montana Legacy Project in 2008 inspired a multi-step land transfer from Plum Creek Timber Co. to The Nature Conservancy to the Forest Service in a transaction worth about $15 million — much of it handled through LWCF.

But that deal left out two checker squares belonging to Stimson Lumber Co. While the Portland-based company no longer has sawmills in Montana, it does retain large landholdings. Stimson lands manager Doug Smith said his staff had been war-gaming disposition of that property for the past decade.

“That’s not to say Stimson is selling out of Montana,” Smith said. “We bought 30,000 acres last year in Montana.”

The Forest Service has limited ability to start or pursue such deals. That’s where the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation got involved. The Missoula-headquartered organization kept interest in the consolidation alive, helped pay for some of the appraisal and due-diligence costs, and asked Daines to arrange a LWCF fund transfer of some money allocated to the Flathead National Forest over to the Lolo National Forest. The final cost of the Edith Peak transfer was $425,000.

“The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation really helped us bring this landscape into continuous ownership,” Forest Service Region One LWCF lands manager Janne Joy said. “Hopefully everybody’s grandchildren will be able to appreciate it.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.