Montana’s new Senator, Republican Steve Daines, is asking Montanans for their input on how to better manage public lands in the state, but some conservation groups are wondering if he really wants to hear from them.
Rick Potts, who’s on the Montana Wilderness Association’s state council, is troubled by some recent Daines votes.
"I know my colleagues in the Montana Wilderness Association and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers as well, feel like they’ve been sucker punched. They didn’t see this coming."
Potts says conservationists feel sucker punched because in December, the Republican Senator sent groups like theirs a letter asking for their ideas on how Congress can increase energy development in the state while ensuring good stewardship of the environment. And then, "Last week we were quite disappointed to learn that Senator Daines had cast several votes that he had not discussed with his constituents," Potts says. "One of which would have re-authorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). "
LWCF, the Land and Water Conservation Fund is a federal program that takes fees paid by offshore oil and gas drilling companies, and uses the money to buy or preserve natural areas for public benefit. LWCF has been used in Montana to buy and upgrade many of the state’s fishing access sites.
Last week Daines voted against a measure to re-authorize the fund that came up as an amendment to the Keystone XL pipeline bill. But Senator Daines says that vote has been mischaracterized by his critics.
"The vote that I took was not in opposition to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The vote I took says I support it. What it says is, we need to reform it and continue to make it better."
That’s Senator Daines on a “telephone town hall” meeting with Montanans he hosted Tuesday night (Full meeting audio below).
Daines actually took two votes on Land and Water Conservation Fund amendments tied to the Keystone XL bill, one against re-authorizing it, the other for his own amendment, which he says was better.
"My amendment says, the program plays an important role in improving wildlife habitat and recreation, and that re-authorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund should be a priority of Congress.
"The intent of my amendment was to get a strong bi-partisan support for LWCF, yet at the same time upholding the integrity and purpose of the program so we ensure that long term it will continue to exist."
Daines’ amendment didn’t pass, nor did the amendment that would have re-authorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
The Senator took one more vote that has Rick Potts and the Montana Wilderness Association concerned.
"Last week Senator Daines cast a vote that would have summarily released 700,000 acres of Wilderness Study Areas in the state of Montana for development. That action came without a single discussion with any of his constituents in Montana, and frankly, flies in the face of the years and years of planning, collaborative discussions between the public and the land management agencies."
The Senate rejected that amendment as well. And Senator Daines did call for input specifically on the release of wilderness study areas in the letter he sent to conservation groups, including MWA, back in December.
Exactly what kind of response Daines is getting from Montanans is unclear, but he clearly believes Montanans are fed up with federal land managers decisions in recent years. He told participants in his telephone town hall Tuesday night that his intent is to find ways to make it easier for the energy, timber and recreation industries to use Montana’s natural resources to make money and create jobs. Daines said it can be done in an environmentally responsible way.
"As it relates to the control and management of our federal lands we need to increase the state's input, and we need to have much stronger control and leadership in managing our federal lands. I believe very much in the federalism philosophy, which is the powers going back to the state. I think our federal government has gotten too powerful. Transfer some of that responsibility back to our governors and our states to allow them to take the lead on managing timber harvests on these federal lands, instead of a bunch of bureaucrats back in Washington. So I completely support more control of Montanans on our federal lands."
Rick Potts of the Montana Wilderness Association says he believes Senator Steve Daines is sincere when he says he wants to work with Montanans from all points of view and come to collaborative agreements on land use. But at this point, Potts would like to see more evidence that conservationists’ priorities are being considered.
Listen to the "Telephone Town Hall Meeting" Sen. Daines hosted Tuesday night.