Conservation Conversion Charade in Montana

Montana’s junior senator, Steve Daines, is trying to capitalize on the restoration of full funding to the Land and Water Conservation Fund to bolster his terrible conservation record prior to his hotly contested election against Gov. Steve Bullock.

There’s no question that it’s decades past time for Congress to get its greedy paws off the revenue stream that was intended to bolster conservation of public lands and waters. But weighed against the environmental damage Daines has continually supported, his latest charade is just that — an election year ploy to trick Montanans and garner a few conservation votes.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund Act was passed into law in 1965. The revenue comes primarily from offshore oil and gas fees and royalties and is capped at $900 million annually. But since its inception, the fund has only received full funding twice in its 55-year history. All the rest of those years over the last half century Congress has diverted most of the fund for other purposes.

The program actually expired in 2018, but was reauthorized and made permanent in 2019. But it faces stern opposition from Republicans such as Utah’s Rep. Rob Bishop, who considers the Land and Water Conservation program a “slush fund,” wants the Endangered Species Act repealed, and led Donald Trump’s move to severely shrink the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments.

The bill authorizing full funding is called the Great American Outdoors Act, and like his House counterpart, Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee is totally opposed to its passage, telling reporters it is “perpetuating and worsening our already highly problematic federal public lands policy.” It’s worth remembering that Lee doesn’t believe in public lands, like many in his state who think federal lands should be transferred to private ownership.

It’s also illustrative of the strictly political motivation for this ploy that President Trump is now showing support for the bill and has singled out Daines and a fellow Republican senator up for reelection. But like so much emanating from Trump, the truth of his hypocrisy is that he previous tried to cut LWCF funding by 97%.

Make no mistake, it will be beneficial to finally and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation program. But the ugly truth is that no amount of money will mitigate the enormous environmental damages being done by the Trump, his administration and its backers in the Senate like Steve Daines. Let’s remember that Trump first used the excuse of the pandemic to tell his environmental regulatory agencies to ignore environmental enforcement. Then, going even further, he declared an “economic emergency” and suspended the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.

Given that extinction is permanent — and we’re in what’s been dubbed the Sixth Great Extinction Event — no amount of money will bring back the species Trump, with the puppet-like support of Daines, has doomed. What kind of damages can and will happen when major industrial projects and extractive industries operate without environmental regulation? Montanans need look no further than Butte for a harsh lesson in permanent pollution and the enormous costs to even marginally mitigate it.

If all goes as expected, the Senate will pass the Great American Outdoors Act today. But Montanans should not be fooled by Steve Daines. He voted to confirm the corporate lobbyists Trump put in to head our most important environmental regulatory agencies, essentially putting the extractive industry foxes in charge of the nation’s natural resource and environmental henhouse.

Daines’ record on the environment speaks for itself — and undeniably proves Daines’ “conservation conversion” is a charade.


George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.