The Case for Conservation [Rep. Ryan Zinke OPINION]
Being a Conservative and being a conservationist are not mutually exclusive. It’s actually my conservative principles that drive my commitment to conservation. Whether one believes our Earth was created by God or not, nobody can argue the fact that it is the only one we have. It’s our responsibility to be good stewards and ensure our children and grandchildren’s children enjoy the same outdoor opportunities that we have.
When you sent me to Washington, protecting Montana’s public lands was, and remains, one of my top priorities. That’s why I made it a point to get on the Natural Resources Committee. Party leaders and I don’t always see eye-to-eye on conservation issues, but they always know where I stand. I’ve said since day one, selling off our public lands is a non-starter. And I mean it. I’ve voted against budget resolutions and bucked party leadership on more than a couple occasions to defend our lands in both the Committee hearings and on the House floor.
Although I’ve only been in Congress for sixteen months, I’ve worked with conservation groups across Montana to help craft important conservation and recreation legislation. I was the only member of the Montana Congressional delegation to vote for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was reauthorized, funded, and signed into law in December. I also helped pass the SHARE Act in the House, and now am working with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Montana Wildlife Federation, and other local stakeholders to help pass the bipartisan SCORE Act.
The SCORE Act is a comprehensive bill which includes seven conservation programs. One of the programs reauthorized in the SCORE Act is the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act (FLTFA). Prior to its expiration in 2011, FLTFA was an important conservation tool that allowed local and federal governments to better manage the “checkerboard” of public and private lands. The program did this by funding Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, National Park Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service land conservation projects that increase public access for outdoor recreation, conserve wildlife habitat, protect water quality, and preserve historic and cultural resources. FLTFA in Montana often uses “land for land” swaps in order to acquire high-priority lands like the Brown’s Gulch near Helena or land near the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.
The Sportsmen's Heritage and Recreational Enhancement (SHARE) Act is another comprehensive and bipartisan bill that protects the traditional right of American sportsmen to fish and hunt. It cuts red-tape and backdoor regulations which block hunting and fishing on BLM and USFS land, and helps safeguard against new regulations that threaten to block or limit Montanans exercising their Second Amendment rights. The bill will protect Montana jobs and economic growth by supporting recreational opportunities on these federal lands. The SHARE Act passed the House last year, and I’m hopeful the Senate takes it up soon.
I was also an early advocate for conservation easements. Our tax code should incentivize farmers, ranchers, and land owners to voluntarily support conservation by donating their land for a tax write up if they so choose. I helped lead the fight in Congress and I’m happy to say we enacted one of the most powerful conservation measures in decades: the federal tax incentive for conservation easement donations. My bill, the Conservation Easement Incentive Act of 2015, was included in a series of permanent tax extensions that was signed into law in December. This was lasting change that would enshrine conservation in our tax code permanently. I made a promise that I would support real reforms and when the vote to make conservation easements permanent occurred, my Montana convictions governed my decision.
Montana’s multi-billion dollar outdoor recreation industry supports 64,000 jobs in the state, is responsible for more than $5.8 billion in consumer spending, and contributes $1.5 billion in wages and salaries. In total, the industry contributes more than $400 million in local and state tax revenues. Important legislation like the LWCF, the SHARE Act, and the SCORE Act protect our parks, hunting and fishing access, and hiking trails, ensuring Montana’s outdoor economy can continue to provide world class recreational opportunities.
I’m a Teddy Roosevelt conservationist. Like Teddy, I believe our lands are worth cherishing for the greater good. We’re all in this together. While there is a lot that separates folks as Republicans and Democrats, there’s also a lot that binds us together as Montanans and Americans. Preserving and conserving our public lands, is one of those values. As Earth Day approaches I’m calling on my colleagues to work on the things that bring us together. Let’s work toward better stewardship and management practices so we can enjoy our public lands for generations to come.