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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Apr 09 2021

Budget Bills are Major Milestones for Public Lands Funding

HB 2 and HB 5 would secure tens of millions for public lands, public access, and wildlife

Behind the scenes of the Montana legislature, lawmakers are playing a quiet game and the outcome will have massive impacts on our outdoor way of life in Montana.

The game: determining the state’s budget.

It’s complex process involving multiple bills, thousands of pages, and conflicting priorities, and it plays an enormous role in determining the direction our state will take over the next two years. Our budget reflects our values as a state, and public lands are an essential Montana value that needs to be reflected in the final budget.

We’re doing everything we can to make sure that’s the case. 

In total, we’re fighting to secure nearly $70 million for conservation during this legislative session. Below, we’ll attempt to shed some light on what that entails. 

House Bill 2

HB 2 is the biggest budget bill of the session, and it must be passed every session to ensure a balanced budget. HB 2 contains the operating and programmatic budgets for all the state agencies, including the Department of Fish, Wildlife, & Parks, the Department of Environmental Quality, and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Many of our conservation priorities live within Fish, Wildlife & Park’s in HB 2. This budget contains funding for fish and wildlife management, access programs like Public Access Land Agreement, State Parks operations and improvements for places like Milltown and Smith River State Parks. FWP’s HB 2 budget also covers staff like park rangers and maintenance employees, and improving capabilities for public participation in agency decision making.

These aren’t the appropriations that make headlines, but they’re crucial to maintaining and expanding access, protecting habitat, and strengthening the wide-ranging infrastructure that makes it possible.

Both the House of Representatives and the Senate recently passed HB 2 with a healthy budget for conservation priorities across the board. It’ll now go to a conference committee to resolve the remaining differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, but we’re well on our way to securing tens of millions for conservation and public lands. 

This is the kind of win that results from our sustained, decades-long effort to build a culture in which public lands are valued and conservation is a priority. It’s not sexy, but it’s crucial to protecting and enhancing our outdoor way of life, and underlines just how important broad and bipartisan support for public lands is. 

House Bill 5

HB 5 is one of the key long-range planning bills introduced every session. This bill covers a wide variety of projects, including many large-dollar priorities at Fish, Wildlife & Parks. These FWP priorities include programs to protect and maintain wildlife habitat, acquire new public lands and easements on private lands, improve access, and address maintenance and improvement backlogs at state parks. The bill recently passed out of the Senate Finance and Claims Committee and awaits a vote on the Senate floor.

We support over a dozen HB 5 projects, including an appropriation of $11.5 million for Habitat Montana, the state’s premier conservation and access program. This bill also includes over $1 million for Montana’s new Trail Stewardship Grant Program, which is money that can benefit our own Volunteer Trail Crew projects and ensure Montanans across the state have top-notch trails to enjoy public lands. 

HB 5 also includes $4 million for access and recreation improvements along the Lower Yellowstone River east of Hysham. MWA is a member of the Lower Yellowstone River Coalition, a group of eastern Montana community leaders, business organizations, economic development experts, and non-profit conservation and recreation groups working together to improve public access along the Lower Yellowstone. We’ve worked hard to secure this $4 million investment, which will give us the tools to boost the quality of life for communities along the river, improve public access, protect unique wildlife habitat, attract more visitors, and strengthen eastern Montana’s economy. 

We’re also proud that legislators have heeded our calls to include nearly $8 million to acquire new public lands that will become Somers Beach State Park and Montebello Fishing Access Site. Somers Beach State Park will provide much-needed public access on the north shore of the lake (89% of the lakeshore is privately owned), and could be closed to public access if the state doesn’t purchase it. Protecting Somers Beach would also protect critical habitat for a wide range of wildlife.

Montebello Fishing Access Site is a similarly outstanding opportunity to increase recreational access to Flathead Lake. This acquisition will alleviate overcrowding at other boat ramps on the lake, which sees over 40,000 angler days per year. It will make it easier to access Wild Horse Island, one of the lake’s most popular destinations. 

These are significant wins for public lands and proof that, even when we’re fighting against seriously legislative headwinds, we can make permanent progress for public lands and our outdoor way of life. Thanks for standing by our side in this effort - we truly couldn’t do it with you.

Of course, there’s still a long way to go. We’re fighting to ensure that lawmakers don’t ransack key conservation funding or pass legislation to pave the way to land transfer, and we need your help.   

If you’d like to contribute to the work of keeping Montana wild, you can make a donation here. 

Thank you. 

Noah Marion
State Policy Director

Noah develops state-level policies to protect and enhance our public lands, waters, wildlife, and access to outdoor recreation. He works with elected officials and partners as MWA’s lobbyist in order to advance conservation priorities at the state legislature. He enjoys rafting, fly fishing, backcountry skiing, hiking, and road trips with his wife and two dogs.
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