By Roger Dey

Richards, CDT advocates discuss impact of public lands, trail with lawmakers


Last updated 12/4/2019 at 1:24pm

Impeachment may be all the rage in Washington DC these days, but public land funding was the reason Laurie Richards made a trip to the nation's capitol last week.

Richards, owner of the Wheel Inn and president of the Lincoln Valley Chamber of Commerce, flew to Washington Monday, Nov. 11 at the invitation of the Continental Divide Trail Coalition to talk to lawmakers about the impact the CDT and public lands have on Lincoln and other small towns in Montana.

Richards joined Austin Phippen of Chama, N.M. and Kevin and Patrick Weber of Denver, to encourage lawmakers - including Montana Senators Steve Daines and Jon Tester and Representative Greg Gianforte - to act on a slate of measures that would help improve public land access and maintenance related to the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail.

The permanent and full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund topped the list of discussion priorities for the group while they were in D.C.

The LWCF was established in 1965, and set aside money from offshore oil and gas leases for public lands. However, the fund wasn't permanently authorized until March of this year, when President Trump signed the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act. The Dingell Act had broad bipartisan support, but it left didn't change the requirement to appropriate the $900 million deposited in the fund each year. A February report in the Montana Current indicated Congress has used the bulk of that money for other programs, with less than $1 million going to public lands each year between 2010 and 2017. According to the CDT Coalition, which is dedicated to promoting and protecting the CDT, more than $22 billion has been diverted away from the LWCF over the years.

"Just like social security, they take that money and spend it where they wish," Richards said. "We're asking for a portion of it."

The CDT Coaltion says LWCF is the only real funding tool they have to purchase the land needed to finish the CDT, which is about 95 percent complete. Roughly 180 miles of the trail run along highways and roads in areas where there is no other public land available for the trail.

"It was an amazing time and I think we might have pulled some people who were not for the funding," Richards said.

Richards said the meetings weren't overly formal affairs, and they often had to meet with the lawmakers staffers, rather than the lawmakers themselves, with locations varying form plush offices to hallways.

"It was just so surreal," Richards said, adding she never would have believed it if five years ago someone had told her she'd be invited to Washington DC to speak about what the Continental Divide Trail has done for Lincoln. With only three of the five Continental Divide states represented in the group, Richards effectively found herself acting as the voice for the small mountain towns of Idaho and Wyoming as well as Montana.

During the meetings, Richards highlighted the important role both the CDT and public lands play in the Lincoln economy. She also learned that Lincoln's situation isn't as singular as one might think.

"What I found out was every small town along the trail has experienced the same thing," she said during last week's Chamber of Commerce meeting. "They've lost industry, so we have to keep our tourism up, and that goes with the hiking and the cycling and all that good stuff."

She told the BVD that Phippen's hometown of Chama, with a population of about 800, had a story almost identical to Lincoln's

"We're on opposite ends of the Continental Divide Trail and our industry was logging and mining and it's gone. So, we should find something, we survive on tourism."

The group also addressed the CORE Act, which would protect public lands along the Divide in Colorado, and the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act, a bill in the House of Representatives to fund the maintenance backlog in national parks and throughout the national forest system.

On Tuesday, Nov. 19, some of those priorities made headway. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved S. 1081, the permanent, full funding of Land and Water Conservation Fund. The committee also approved S. 500, the Senate's Restore Our Parks Act that affects maintenance in the national parks –including a $716 million backlog in Glacier and Yellowstone - but doesn't address national forest needs.

The bills will now go to the Senate for a full floor vote.

"What a great day in the United States Senate and what a great day in Montana. With today's vote we are one step closer to fully funding the Land Water Conservation Fund and addressing the growing maintenance backlog in our national parks..." Daines, a member of the committee, said in a statement released Tuesday morning following the vote.

The LWCF Permanent Funding Act, if passed and signed into law, would make the full $900 million that goes into the fund each year permanently available to public lands, without the need for it to go through appropriations.

Although the economic impact of the Continental Divide Trail was the main focus of the trip, which was paid for by a grant the CDT Coalition received, Richards made sure the people she talked to also learned a little more about Lincoln, throwing plugs for Sculpture in the Wild and other local highlights into her talks. Richards said she also took the opportunity to talk members of Testers staff about concerns with the stalled wildfire mitigation projects, expressing the dangerous situation Lincoln may be in if another major wildfire springs up.

During her trip to a city rife with partisan politics, Richards, a relatively conservative person who found herself in the company of a more liberal set, found there is a surprising amount of common ground in support for public lands along the Continental Divide.

"I feel very blessed I was a part of it. It was an amazing experience," she said.


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