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Prickly Pear

Prickly Pear Creek at the new fishing access site location.

Montana’s top political officials are all declaring support for the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund as it nears a possible expiration in September.

Both Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester released announcements this week about the program’s reauthorization language in the Senate’s Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015.

That bill is set for committee markup next week.

Also this week, Gov. Steve Bullock wrote the entire congressional delegation with a plea to save the 50-year-old program.

Bullock noted Montana has received more than $237 million in LWCF grants since 2005. That includes about 165 fishing access sites getting built or improved and 181,000 acres of forest lands receiving conservation protection.

But even with so many Montana politicians pointed in the same direction, challenges remain in Washington.

The 357-page energy act is also known as the Bipartisan Energy Bill, which gives it better-than-average chances of passage before the congressional fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. But it also competes with all 13 of Congress’ appropriations bills that have to meet the same deadline.

And while Sept. 30 is almost 70 days away, Congress really has about 20 working days around its August recess, Labor Day break and other holidays.

The House of Representatives is also working on an energy policy bill that has much less bipartisan support. Those two would have to be reconciled quickly to reach President Barack Obama’s desk.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is currently allowed to take up to $900 million of the royalties energy companies pay the federal government for oil and gas exploration leases. It then disburses the money for a wide variety of open-space programs, including city parks, recreation facilities, and wildlife habitat projects.

“As Montana’s sole member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, I’m pleased that the committee has reached a bipartisan solution to permanently reauthorize LWCF,” Daines wrote in an email. “LWCF is an important program for Montana that helps expand access to our public lands. I’m excited to finally take this significant step forward to ensure that this critical program remains in place for generations to come.”

Bullock asked them to support Senate Bill 338, which would permanently reauthorize the fund. That bill was introduced by former Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., in the previous Senate session, but died at the end of 2014’s fiscal year. Its provisions are now a part of the Energy Policy Modernization Act.

“The LWCF has done so much good for our state,” Bullock wrote in his letter. “It’s hard to imagine what Montana would be like without it. From fishing access sites to parks and playgrounds, the LWCF has changed the everyday lives of Montanans for the better.”

And on Wednesday, Tester announced that his “Making Public Lands Public” bill was also included in the Energy Policy Modernization Act.

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Tester’s legislation requires at least 1.5 percent or $10 million of LWCF funds every year be spent to secure rights-of-way or easements that open public access to existing public lands.

“In Montana, our public lands drive our economy, inspire folks to live and work here, and preserve our outdoor way of life,” Tester said. “I’m pleased my LWCF language was included in this bill so we can continue to increase access to our state’s most treasured places.”

In June, Tester tried to amend the Interior Appropriations bill to provide $400 million a year to the LWCF, but it failed on a party-line vote. Daines also tried to pass a modified version of LWCF reauthorization that would have opened it up for study and reform. That measure also failed to get attached to a bill authorizing the Keystone XL Pipeline project.

The new reauthorization language also contains some changes demanded by Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Murkowski wants at least 40 percent of LWCF grants to go to nonfederal projects. She also proposed diverting up to $150 million of the energy royalties annually to a new fund for National Park Service maintenance.

The National Park Service faces about $11.5 billion in deferred maintenance.

House Natural Resources Committee chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, reportedly is preparing his own reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which may send some of its funds to county payment-in-lieu-of-taxes programs.

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