Our families have lived and ranched the land in the High Divide of Eastern Idaho and southwestern Montana for generations. Our forefathers settled this beautiful part of America to make a living running cattle, and our families are still here because it’s hard to imagine living and working anyplace more spectacular or more satisfying.
To be sure, the majestic landscape and abundant fish and wildlife are an important part of that satisfaction, but the real lure of the High Divide is the people who call this region home and give it such a strong sense of community. We share values that include an appreciation for hard work, a strong stewardship ethic, and individual responsibility combined with a sense of collaboration when it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get things done together.
All of these qualities are what brought us to Ennis, Mont., at the end of August; ranchers, farmers, hunters and anglers, conservationists, government agencies and elected officials working together under the umbrella of a coalition we call the High Divide Conservation Collaborative. We gathered to celebrate the tremendous amount of locally driven conservation success in the High Divide, to champion our recent proposal to bring new funding to the region, and to discuss a key tool that has played an important role in Idaho and Montana.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund, which Congress established in 1964, directs royalties from the sale of offshore oil and gas drilling rights to conservation, recreation, and public land programs and projects nationwide. Unless it is reauthorized, the LWCF will expire at the end of this month, and if that happens, Idaho, Montana and the rest of the country will have lost a critical tool that has provided invaluable outdoor benefits to millions of Americans.
We were joined in Ennis by U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, who as a member of the Senate Natural Resources Committee has been a key leader in efforts to reauthorize the program, as well as senior staff from the offices of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Mike Simpson.
As diverse as the people in the room in Ennis were, we are unanimous in believing that the Land and Water Conservation Fund is worth rolling up our sleeves and working together for.
Here’s why: In just the past three years, the fund has provided $29.7 million for 19 projects across 25,000 acres in Idaho. In Montana, it’s provided $114.5 million for 41 projects across 136,000 acres. Working together through the High Divide Conservation Collaborative, we also have a pending proposal that would bring $32 million in LWCF support to Idaho and Montana for projects on another 25,000 acres. These projects would keep agricultural lands in production, secure important connectivity habitat for wide-ranging species like elk and pronghorn, conserve important headwaters for fish and human uses, increase access to public lands and protect sage grouse habitat.
The spirit of the Land and Water Conservation Fund can be seen in the beauty of the High Divide and in the faces of the people here who benefit from the projects and programs it supports. The smile of a father and son fishing. Awe in the eyes of a hiker cresting a ridge. Satisfaction etched in the brow of a rancher after a day on the range. The curiosity of a child contemplating an arrowhead. By all these measures — dollars and acres, visitors, smiles, heads of cattle, home runs, fish on the line, etc. — the Land and Water Conservation Fund is one of America’s most important conservation and recreation programs.
Its five decades of success and potential to make additional lasting impacts are why we wholeheartedly endorse a bill introduced in Congress earlier this summer by Sens. Daines and Tester to reauthorize the fund. The bill — and ultimately ranching, conservation, recreation and the vitality of our rural communities in both states — deserve the full support of all Idahoans and Montanans.
Brooke Erb is a third-generation Montana rancher. She and her husband own and operate E Bar Cattle in Dillon. Merrill Beyeler is a third-generation Idaho cattle rancher. His extended family owns and operates Beyeler Ranches in Leadore.