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The Land and Water Conservation Fund, which takes a portion of federal royalties from offshore oil drilling and uses them for matching grants for acquisition of wildlife habitat, recreation and access, is set to sunset at the end of September. LWCF has funded more than $400 million in projects in Montana and $15 billion in projects nationwide.

Senate support for permanent authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund got the most notice on Wednesday, but passage of the Energy Policy Modernization Act has a lot of other Montana-related details.

“Energy is the title of the bill, but you can see there’s a lot of moving parts,” Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said Wednesday shortly after the measure passed the Senate. “We’re a state that loves the outdoors and fishing and hunting opportunities, and has lots of natural resources. We passed this bill so we can have jobs and economic growth and at same time protect the land we enjoy on the weekends.”

The stop-gap version of LWCF provided $896,000 to Montana for land buys in this budget cycle. But the 52-year-old program had been in limbo after several efforts to reauthorize it on a permanent status failed in Congress. Even on Wednesday, a late amendment that would have limited the kinds of projects LWCF money could assist was brought up for a vote. It was defeated by a two-to-one margin, with both Daines and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., voting to block it.

The fund collects up to $900 million from royalties the U.S. Government receives from off-shore oil and gas leases. However, Congress is not obligated to put a specific amount into the LWCF bank account. In fact, the fund has only received its full appropriation twice since it was reauthorized in 1978. The fiscal 2016 appropriation was $450 million.

“Public lands sportsmen and women have spoken up, loudly, clearly and consistently, in advocating for a responsive energy bill that will sustain our sporting heritage by conserving lands with high wildlife habitat value and healthy fisheries – as well as securing access for economically important activities like hunting and fishing,” Backcountry Hunters and Anglers President Land Tawney said in an email. “The Senate’s foresighted actions deserve to be loudly praised, not just by sportsmen but by all Americans with a stake in outdoor recreation and who appreciate the importance of our nation's public lands and waters.”

The energy bill passed the Senate 85-12. It now goes to a conference committee to reconcile it with a version passed by the House of Representatives. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., said the House bill contains a provision he worked on that simplifies the process electric utilities go through to maintain power lines on federal lands.

“I’m encouraged by the bill the Senate passed today and I think it gives both chambers the opportunity to pass a bill that will modernize America’s energy infrastructure and grow our production,” Zinke said in an email. “I’m very happy that provisions to reauthorize LWCF and export liquid natural gas were included, and also that my bills to reauthorize two Montana hydro projects were included in this package.”

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Those hydro projects extend the operating licenses on the Gibson Dam of the Sun River for six years and the Clark Canyon Dam on the Beaverhead River for three years. Both dam’s licenses had been terminated. However, neither of those projects have funding for dam reconstruction yet. And funding for them was not included in the energy bill.

The bill does make hydroelectric power a “renewable” energy source under federal standards. That can change the way hydro projects qualify for federal incentives, Daines said.

“It was more a matter of political correctness than science,” Daines said. “Now hydro is considered like wind and solar as we look at incentives down the road.”

The energy policy bill directs federal land managers to prioritize access to lands with hunting, fishing and shooting opportunities, increases state authority to fund shooting ranges on public lands, and requires most Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands to be open for hunting, fishing and shooting. A provision of Tester’s requires at least $10 million of LWCF annual money go to acquiring access rights to public lands surrounded by private property.

It reauthorizes the North American Wetlands Conservation Act through 2019, providing land management grants for waterfowl projects.

On the energy development front, the bill streamlines permitting for wind, solar and geothermal projects, simplifies the approval process for geothermal projects on public lands, and boosts research and development for coal-burning technology.

Daines said another provision in the bill would require the Forest Service or BLM to post any amounts they pay in legal settlements to project litigants on a publicly available website.

A portion of the federal off-shore mineral leasing revenue will be tapped to provide $150 million a year to the National Park Service for backlogged maintenance concerns. In Glacier National Park alone, that currently amounts to about $180 million in 2016.

“This bill strikes a balance that will protect energy jobs and improve outdoor opportunities for sportsmen, as well as boost Montana’s energy portfolio, invest in our outdoor economy, and increase access to our public lands,” Tester said in an email statement.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.