The Land and Water Conservation Fund: Democracy, and the Economics of Access

The sound of splashing and laughing children drifts through a dense thicket of willows and cottonwood saplings. It’s a hot, mid- Saturday morning in early August at Grey Owl Fishing Access Site on the Yellowstone River, crowded with a row of parked pickups and SUVs and Subarus left behind by the early wave of fishermen and guides boats already far downstream. Late arrivals like my son and daughter and I are everywhere. A cowboy-hatted man and his three kids drag a sun-bleached raft to the water, while a woman in a new Toyota 4-Runner waits her turn to launch an elegant Lavro driftboat.  A yellow Labrador pup trots by, nose-to-gravel, pursued by a swift barefooted toddler in shorts, who has outdistanced a young woman bearing a swim bag in one hand and a picnic cooler in the other.  We’re here to wile away an hour or two, just passing through on our way home. Like everybody else here, we’ve come to enjoy one of the coldest, cleanest, most accessible big rivers in the world.

From the fly angler hunting native cutthroats on the Upper Bitterroot to the bowfisherman stalking paddlefish in the Dredge Cuts of below Fort Peck Reservoir, there may be no place on earth where people enjoy free access to such a wide variety of waters, fish, wildlife and just pure outdoor experience as they do right now in Montana. It’s a sad irony that, in a world where top quality fishing and some of our most beautiful landscapes are increasingly reserved for those who can pay the most for them, almost none of the estimated 950,000 people annually who enjoy Montana’s rivers and lakes have any idea why we have such an extensive network of public access sites, deliberately acquired and carefully developed, to ensure that such access remains for future generations.

That irony is even sadder because the mechanism used to establish that visionary network of access, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), has been pillaged in an increasingly brazen manner for the past two decades, with almost $17 billion of its funds removed to date. LWCF, despite its track record of success, is now in danger of being eliminated altogether, largely due to political leaders acting out of ideologically- hidebound ignorance, or who simply want to use the money allocated to the LWCF for almost anything but conservation and the public’s access to America’s outdoors.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund was born in the early years of the 1960’s from the ideas of President John F. Kennedy, the renowned conservation leader (and then Secretary of the Interior) Stewart Udall, and others. It was established in 1965. The Act designated that a small portion of the annual receipts from offshore oil and gas leases would be placed into a fund that would be distributed to the states for projects focusing on everything from public tennis courts and swimming pools to protecting watersheds, national parks, wildlife and fisheries and other natural resources. The LWCF was to have an allocation cap of $900 million – a powerful sum at a time when real estate and development costs were very low compared to now.

Since 1965, when the money began to be available to states and communities, LWCF has become one of the most successful and non-controversial funding sources in history, in large part because it isn’t a tax, and simply because it has been so successful, using funds generated by a non-renewable resource (oil and gas) to invest in extremely popular projects in all 50 states. (For more background, see our first LWCF story from August 15th or go here for a comprehensive report on both the history and the possible future of the LWCF).

One of those success stories was the establishment of public Fishing Access Sites across Montana. In the first three decades after the Land and Water Conservation Fund was created in 1965, 241 of Montana’s 775 fishing access sites were purchased outright with LWCF money. The goal was simple: ensure public access to the rivers and lakes for fishing and other recreation. What was achieved was of a much larger magnitude.

“From 1965 through the 70s we put so much good work on the ground here in Montana with LWCF money,” said Tom Reilly, who oversees LWCF projects for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “Even as it tapered off in the 80’s and 90’s, we were still accomplishing goals that became a huge boon to our state, in just about every aspect of life, from swimming pools and tennis courts in rural communities that would have never had them, to the fishing access sites themselves. Beyond just giving people a way to enjoy the rivers, a lot of those sites have become surrounded by development now. They’ve become the local places where everybody goes for walks, trains their dogs, take the kids swimming and floating. It’s why people want to live and raise their families in these towns and cities - it goes so far beyond just fishing access, which is all we thought we were doing at the time, that it’s hard to imagine.” Reilly also says that he “gets calls all the time from people in other states, asking ‘how can we do what you have done?’ We are the envy of almost everyone in every other state.”

What the acquisition of the fishing access sites has achieved is known to economists as a “multiplier,” a force that resonates outward and creates more wealth for more people than the original resource itself. Thomas Michael Power, who served for twenty years as the Chairman of the Economics Department at the University of Montana, has studied and written about the role of what he calls “amenity supported economic vitality” for almost as long as the LWCF has been in existence. “What leads a person to choose one location over another?” Power asks. “What accounts for what demographers call the ‘resettling of the Inland west?’ The answer is found in the transformation of western Montana, where you have the public lands and the access to rivers, combined in many places with the cultural amenities of college towns nearby. There are tremendous mental payoffs in living a healthy and active life, and people in the knowledge class- most of them highly skilled professionals- understand that. They seek out the places where they can live that kind of life, and that’s where they put down roots and raise families. And they create a climate for lots of start-up businesses, a climate with a lot of dynamism.” Power notes that this does not come about accidentally. “You have to have leadership, people who can imagine how things could be better. And you will always have people who oppose them. The change in how we view our rivers, and how we’ve treated them, is incredible, but it did not happen without a fight, and that continues today.”

The quality of life created by ready access to clean rivers and public lands has transformed the demographics and real estate markets of cities like Bozeman and Missoula, Power said, and a recreation economy based on those same amenities has been “an ongoing source of income and employment” that carries well away from the cities, as well. “You now have so many small businesses operating seasonally, in all of these out of the way places, like along the Salmon River in Idaho. I hear people say, ‘oh, that seasonal work, you can’t live that way’ but many, many people do, and they choose it. They are in a partnership or self-employed and they’ll do something else the rest of the year. The criticism that these jobs are too low paid, or people only do them because there’s nothing else available, is unwarranted. For most people who do that work, it’s a choice.”

There are acres of mind-numbing but important findings about the quantifiable strength of the recreation economy and about the power of “amenity-supported economic vitality” in the modern day West. Clearly, the oil and gas revenues flowing into the LWCF and on to the states have proved to be one of the best and most reliable investments the US has ever made in its own future. Studies conducted by the Outdoor Industry Association find that consumer spending on outdoor recreation in Montana adds up to $5.8 billion every year, accounts for 64,000 direct jobs with $1.5 billion in wages, and adds $403 million in state and local tax revenue to the coffers. Another outdoor trade group, The Society of Recreation Professionals, produces an extensive array of proof of the multiplier effect of the LWCF, and their literature states bluntly: “The 1965 Land and Water Conservation Fund Act (LWCF) is the most significant outdoor recreation enactment in our Nation’s history.”

To step aside from the abstract world of economic statistics and theories and talk directly to those who live them is easy to do in Montana, where there are hundreds of licensed hunting and fishing outfitters, operating everything from lodges to day-trips to weeks-long wilderness pack trips. “We probably have about 300 outfitters on our organization who offer fishing only,” said Robin Cunningham, Executive Director of the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana (FOAM), “and another 100 that offer fishing along with other activities. And of course, although I’d like to think differently, not all outfitters are members of FOAM.” Cunningham, based in Gallatin Gateway, Montana, is quick to acknowledge the role of the fishing access sites in his industry, and in the economic multiplier effect. “Our clients fly here, they stay in local motels, go out to eat, rent cars and travel, go to tackle shops and fish on their own. You’re getting probably twice the amount of money coming in to the state that we’re paid to guide and outfit the clients.” And it’s an industry based on nothing more or less than clean water and access. “The big picture is that having all those sites means we can offer our clients the kind of diversity in fishing that will keep them happy and keep them coming back. A Montana outfitter can offer plenty of options- if a river is not fishing well, or if the client wants to see a particular place, or get away from other anglers, we can do that. There’s no way we could do that without the fishing access sites we have.” Cunningham also points out that, perhaps counter-intuitively, the widely distributed access contributes to the health of the world-class fishery. “No one place gets too much use. You can look at rivers like the Madison, which is the most heavily used river in Montana- 160,000 angler visits per year. It’s still an excellent fishery, and that’s partly because when it gets too crowded, fishermen can go to any of dozens of other rivers or lakes, or to another part of the Madison.”

For veteran outdoorsman and outfitter John Herzer of the Missoula-based Blackfoot Outfitters, the rivers of Montana are home as well as workplace. Herzer says, even in his day-to-day life on the rivers, he’s never once lost sight of just how lucky he and his family are to be so involved with, and dependent upon, such a powerful natural resource. “We have access to what I would say is the strongest fishery of its kind in the nation, all of these public lands and rivers. It is just incredible.” That access is the key to Herzer’s family business which includes two fly shops, nine employees, as many as seventeen guides who work as independent contractors, and at least twenty people driving shuttles on the Bitterroot and Clark Fork Rivers every day of the season, making $20-$45 per trip. “All of our guides have their own boats, tackle, trailers, trucks, all of that, and every one of them is at the grocery store every day, buying groceries for the clients. This is a very serious deal for local businesses.” Herzer estimates that 85% of his business depends on the fishing access sites. “Without them we are, essentially, out of business.” He says it is important to remember that each guide and outfitter pays a $100 annual fee to use the sites, and a percentage of their gross income to the state for the use of most of the rivers. “So that, again, is a big revenue stream produced year after year by those access sites. Without them, the state would not have that, either.”

“We have so many clients who won’t go to other states to fish, because they know they’ll have the chance to fish so many different rivers here, and if the Clark Fork, for example, is fishing poorly, we can load up and go to the Big Hole. I cannot emphasize how important that is to us.” Beyond business, though, Herzer says, the public access to this resource is a fundamental part of what makes Montana, and our nation, unique. “All of the people like you and me, who probably don’t have the money to buy our own ranches, or own a home on a river to have a place to fish, we have all of this. In any given season in our work, we see literally thousands of people using the fishing access sites to enjoy the rivers. I think a lot of people in politics forget how important all of this is to our country.”

On a national level, the facts support that claim. The looting of the LWCF began in earnest in the late 1980’s, and appropriations for the Fund have decreased every year since 2001. As Tim Ahern of the Trust for Public Land, explains, “The money still goes into the LWCF every year. No, it’s not as much as it’s supposed to be, but last fiscal year, $322 million went in. But the LWCF has come to be seen as just a big cookie jar- the money is appropriated for something other than conservation.” What has to happen now, Ahern said, is that the Congress first has to reauthorize the Act in 2014, mandate that the LWCF be fully funded every year, and establish clearly where the money must be used.
In Montana, the kind of partisan political leadership that has poisoned discourse across much of the nation is uncommon. The pragmatists among Montana’s political leadership have been relentless advocates for the LWCF, for reauthorization, full funding, and for restoring the use of the fund for conservation.

In February of 2013, Montana Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester introduced SB 338, The Land and Water Conservation Authorization and Funding Act Senator Tester explained to reporters, "Hunters and anglers tell me every day that their top priority for Montana is ensuring public access to public land. Outdoor recreation creates thousands of Montana jobs and protects our proud outdoor traditions for future generations. The Land and Water Conservation Fund is a popular, smart investment in the future of our land, our clean water, and our kids and grandkids who will grow up enjoying the same outdoor opportunities we all love in Montana."

In August, Senator Baucus and his staff organized a float on the Madison River specifically to bring attention to the importance of the LWCF. A large flotilla of rafts and canoes and kayaks took to the water along a carefully chosen route—- from the Milwaukee Fishing Access site (purchased with LWCF funds) downstream to the Missouri River Headwaters State Park (an LWCF project which preserves the site where the Lewis and Clark expedition camped in the summer of 1805) where the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin Rivers all come together to form the 2300 mile-long Missouri. Along the entire route of the float is very popular ten mile walking and biking trail, developed also with help from the LWCF, which connects the town of Three Forks to the state park.

Scott Bosse, the Director of Northern Rockies Conservation for the group American Rivers, took to the river with the rest of the flotilla, (his report is here:, and ended up piloting Senator Baucus down the Madison in his raft. In an interview last week, Bosse said he’d been thinking a lot about that day on the river with a career politician who has been an unflagging advocate for the LWCF and other conservation causes. “Our tagline at American Rivers is ‘Rivers Connect Us,’ and I think that’s appropriate,” Bosse said. “But there’s something deeper here, too, with all this effort to connect people of every kind and every kind of means to this huge world of their rivers and fisheries. I think what we’re talking about with the fishing access sites is that, in the West at least, this kind of public access is the connection between the great outdoors and our democracy.”

To learn more about the Land and Water Conservation Fund and what is at stake, visit the LWCF Coalition

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