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What's at stake for public lands in this special election

 


Public lands have become a major issue in this campaign, and for good reason. Whomever Montanans elects as their next congressman, he will have the opportunity to vote on congressional budgets that will have an enormous impact on our public lands.

Budgets are more than numbers; they’re also value statements. And the budget President Trump recently proposed makes clear that he does not value our public lands the same way Montanans do.

His budget would cut the Department of the Interior’s budget by 12 percent, representing a decrease of $1.5 billion from the 2017 budget. The Department of the Interior oversees the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, among other agencies. At 21 percent, the president’s proposed slash to Agriculture’s budget is even more draconian. The Department of Agriculture administers Montana’s largest land management agency, the U.S. Forest Service.

According to The New York Times, the president wants to reduce funding to the Department of Agriculture by cutting the budget of the Forest Service, which already has to neglect many of its core duties because it now spends more than half its operating budget fighting fires.

Our land management agencies are already operating on threadbare budgets. Any more cuts to the Forest Service and BLM, especially ones as drastic as the president proposes, would have a devastating impact on the public lands that make our way of life possible.

Here’s a sampling of the vital work our public land management agencies are already neglecting because of the budget constraints they currently face:

• Maintaining campgrounds and trailheads that provide the public access to traditional hunting and fishing grounds. In a popular Bitterroot campground, for instance, a contaminated water system wasn’t replaced in 2015 because funding for it was diverted to fighting fires.

• Completing restoration projects that reduce fuel loads, improve water quality, and create much-needed jobs. In the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Forest, as an example, westslope cutthroat trout should have been restored to 25 miles of stream in 2015. That didn’t happen also because funding was diverted to firefighting.

• Treating thousands of acres of noxious weeds in Montana. Along the Rocky Mountain Front, for instance, the Forest Service said it needs to treat a minimum of approximately 879 to 1,149 acres every year to reduce infestation, but the agency can’t meet those goals because it doesn’t have the money to do so.

• Improving Forest Service roads to increase recreational access and protect fish and wildlife. In 2015, the Flathead National Forest was unable to complete re-surfacing on 20 miles of a primary access road in the Swan Valley because funding was diverted to firefighting.

If the Trump budget were enacted, the biggest hit to public lands in Montana would land on trail maintenance. There are 29,000 miles of trails in Montana managed by the Northern Region of the Forest Service. In 2015, the regional office was able to perform basic maintenance on only 13,000 of those miles. The remaining 16,000 miles went unmaintained for lack of funding.

Trails bring people from all over the country to our gateway towns, where they fill up on gas, eat in restaurants, and sometimes stay the night. They contribute to Montana’s $6 billion outdoor recreation economy. Without a properly functioning Forest Service or BLM, that economy is at risk, and so are the 64,000 jobs that currently rely on it.

Whoever becomes our next congressman would need to fight tooth and nail for a budget that enables our public lands managers to create the conditions that allow our outdoor recreation economy to continue to thrive.

For far too long we’ve been expecting our public land managers to do more with less. Allowing those agencies to bleed to death, as President Trump’s proposed budget would certainly do, would sap the energy from our economy, threaten our outdoor way of life, and degrade the lands and waters we hold so dear.

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John Todd is the conservation director at Montana Wilderness Association.

 

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