Donald Trump with Republican senator Steve Daines (right of the president) during a signing ceremony for the Great American Outdoors Act on August 4, 2020
Donald Trump with Republican senator Steve Daines (right of the president) during a signing ceremony for the Great American Outdoors Act on August 4, 2020
Donald Trump with Republican senator Steve Daines (right of the president) during a signing ceremony for the Great American Outdoors Act on August 4, 2020 (Photo: Alex Brandon/AP)

Want to Win in Montana? It’s the Environment, Stupid.

Even in traditionally conservative states like Montana and Wyoming, no single issue unites centrist voters in 2020 more than public-lands protection. That's one reason Montana Republican senator Steve Daines has spent the past 18 months trying to convince voters he's a reliable conservationist. Critics say it's mere "greenwashing," but his success may decide the balance of power in Washington.

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“Beautiful day enjoying our public lands and hunting with @SteveDaines,” Montana Republican Senate candidate Matt Rosendale tweeted back in October 2018, along with a photo of himself and Daines, the state’s junior senator. The pair were both clad in camouflage and grinning in front of a mountain vista, hunting rifles slung over their shoulders. It was the final stretch of the midterm campaign, and the photo op was part of an effort to rebrand Rosendale as a public-lands supporter. 

Rosendale was trying to unseat senator Jon Tester, a Democrat, and despite the campaign taking place in a conservative state that Donald Trump had won by 20 points two years earlier, his opponent was seen as having a slight edge with election day approaching, largely because his support for public lands made him popular among independents and even some conservatives. Rosendale, in contrast, was on the record during a 2014 run for Congress as backing the transfer of federal public lands to the states, an increasingly toxic position in Montana and throughout the West. By 2018, he was eager to demonstrate his repentance, while Daines, two years away from his own reelection bid, was eager to help him. But they could not outrun their inauthenticity: the spot they chose to mug for the camera was not, in fact, on public land. It was on a ranch belonging to Robert E. Smith, the conservative media mogul and director of the Sinclair Broadcast Group. Locals familiar with the scenery immediately called out the visual gaffe, which highlighted a preference on the part of Daines, Rosendale, and their fellow Republicans for appearance over substance on public-lands issues. 

Tester defeated Rosendale by 3.5 points, and the Republican postmortem was clear: their candidate’s weakness on public lands cost him votes. Tester had campaigned on a consistent record of supporting the beleaguered Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and as an advocate for federally designated wilderness. Against Tester’s record of action—which included a successful bill to enlarge the Bob Marshall Wilderness—Rosendale’s lip service came up woefully short. 

The Republican Party, and Steve Daines in particular, took note. A fundamental problem has emerged for the GOP throughout the West: the old planks of fiscal conservatism, maximum local control over federally managed public lands, and strong support for extractive industries are not resonating the way they used to. In Montana, and in the Mountain West more broadly, there’s arguably no single issue that unites the middle more than public lands protection. A January 2020 poll by Colorado College found that 84 percent of Montana voters say that issues involving clean water, clean air, wildlife, and public lands are important in deciding whether or not to back an elected official. Across the Mountain West, the number of voters who say they prioritize those issues above all others has jumped from 31 to 44 percent since 2016. “In the 2018 election, whether a candidate ran for governor, senator, or representative, those who showed support for the West’s outdoors, parks, and public lands had a leg up in connecting with voters,” according to the Center for Western Priorities, a Denver-based nonprofit that studies attitudes about public lands, environment, and conservation. “I think the importance of public lands and conservation has only grown,” says Jesse Prentice-Dunn, the CWP’s policy director. “We’re really talking a political third rail here.” 

This means it is Daines who now must burnish his credentials before a skeptical electorate heavy with public-lands voters. In what has been billed as the most expensive race in Montana history—$143 million and counting—Daines is battling to save his own seat from a challenge by Montana governor Steve Bullock, a Democrat who, like Tester, enjoys a reputation as a public-lands and conservation champion and has a proven record of winning independents and centrist Republicans. Independents make up a third of the Montana electorate, and in this critical election year, Daines’s ability to convince those voters of his trustworthiness as a conservationist may decide the partisan balance of the Senate.

Daines is not the only western Republican facing these shifting public sentiments. Here in Montana, Republican Greg Gianforte, a congressman and candidate for governor, has been dogged by his attempt to limit stream access on a section of the Gallatin River that crosses his property, and Rosendale, who is now the candidate to replace Gianforte in Congress, has drawn negative press for using his position on the state land board to try and block conservation easements. Public-lands issues are also at play in Arizona, where former astronaut Mark Kelly, a Democrat, is challenging senator Martha McSally, a Republican and former congresswoman whose support for the LWCF contrasts with votes to open public lands to drilling and to repeal the Obama administration’s methane rule. 

Colorado senator Cory Gardner is currently trailing his Democratic challenger, former governor John Hickenlooper, by ten points in some polls. Gardner has alienated conservationists by supporting deregulation of the oil and gas industry and withholding support for the CORE Act, which would protect 400,000 acres of state public land. Hickenlooper has a less than stellar environmental record—he’s been nicknamed “Frackenlooper” after his enthusiastic support for fracking—but he backs the CORE Act, which has the support of 68 percent of Coloradans, and he has another advantage over Gardner: in a state where 63 percent of voters believed that action should be taken to confront climate change, Hickenlooper represents the party that does not call it a hoax. 

Daines is in a better position than Gardner—according to the polling average at election-site FiveThirtyEight, Daines was leading Bullock by around three points at press time—but Daines’s lackluster public-lands record and his fealty to the Trump agenda haunt him in similar ways. 

Like Gardner, and every other Republican, Daines must defend the Trump administration’s all-out war on the environment. They have to answer for the harassment of government scientists, efforts to gut the Antiquities Act, a dismantling of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the elimination of opportunities for public involvement in the planning processes of the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, the abandonment of the Paris climate accords, and the rollback of Obama-era safeguards against methane pollution. If that weren’t enough, Daines is an especially enthusiastic supporter of one of Trump’s most backward-looking and quixotic obsessions: the resurrection of the moribund coal industry via deregulation and government intervention, the precise opposite of the free-market approach that both men claim to support. 

The numbers from Colorado College and the Center for Western Priorities suggest that the Trump administration and the Republican Party’s aggressive anti-environment actions are out of step with a significant majority of western voters, and yet Daines and Gardner have both voted to support Trump’s agenda almost 90 percent of the time. “If you are not for strong action on climate change, you really can’t say you are for protecting our public lands and water, because that’s the biggest threat,” says Kelly Nordini, executive director of Conservation Colorado, a Denver-based nonprofit with 60,000 members.

Like Gardner, and every other Republican, Daines must defend the Trump administration’s all-out war on the environment.

With little else to boast about on their conservation résumés, Daines and Gardner are leaning heavily on their claims to have saved one of the most important pieces of conservation legislation in American history—the Land and Water Conservation Fund—via a bill called the Great American Outdoors Act, which they helped pass earlier this year. As with the Rosendale hunting photo, however, appearances are deceiving. There is no question that the GAOA is a major achievement. It fulfills one of the most sought-after goals of the conservation community—the full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund to the tune of $900 million annually, which comes hot on the heels of permanent reauthorization in 2019—and creates a separate fund to address a maintenance backlog in national parks and other federally managed lands that has swelled to billions of dollars’ worth of work. The question is: How much credit do Daines and Gardner deserve for going the final yard in a decade-long campaign to secure the future of the LWCF? 

Given the conspicuous timing, critics have accused both Daines and Gardner of using the Great American Outdoors Act to “greenwash” their otherwise dismal conservation records. In the spring of an election year, after limping along for years and expiring twice, the LWCF suddenly became a top priority for Trump and Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. If Trump knew anything at all about the LWCF prior to March 2020, his White House budget proposals—which repeatedly slashed LWCF allocations—suggested that he did not value the program. For 2021, Trump’s budget requested just $14.7 million for the program, a 97 percent cut and less than 2 percent of the $900 million cap. But after visiting with Daines and Gardner at the White House, Trump had an epiphany. “I am calling on Congress to send me a Bill that fully and permanently funds the LWCF and restores our National Parks,” Trump tweeted on March 3. “When I sign it into law, it will be HISTORIC for our beautiful public lands. ALL thanks to @SenCoryGardner and @SteveDaines, two GREAT Conservative Leaders!” Gardner introduced the Great American Outdoors Act on March 9, the same day that Steve Bullock formally announced his bid for Senate and dashed Daines’s hopes of an easy reelection.

McConnell, who had passed up multiple opportunities to advance LWCF bills over the years, suddenly found religion, too, taking the necessary measures to schedule a floor vote on the Great American Outdoors Act. “It is a mark of how determined Mr. McConnell is to see the measure through that he is willing to advance a bill that splits Senate Republicans—the kind of intramural division that he is usually keen to avoid,” Carl Hulse of The New York Times wrote back in June. “But both Mr. Gardner and Mr. Daines are in very difficult races in a tough year.” That McConnell would choose to expedite a piece of legislation for the express political benefit of two of his fellow Republican senators is not at all surprising. Whether the gambit will provide enough of a boost to Daines to win over conservation-minded independents is another matter. “Leading the way on one issue doesn’t make you a conservation champion,” says Tracy Stone-Manning, an adviser to the National Wildlife Federation Action Fund and Bullock’s former chief of staff, “and I think Montana voters look at the body of somebody’s approach and work.”

Montana governor Steve Bullock, back left, and Senator Daines, back right, prepare for their televised debate on September 28, 2020
Montana governor Steve Bullock, back left, and Senator Daines, back right, prepare for their televised debate on September 28, 2020 (Ben Allan Smith/AP)

Daines’s opponent, governor Steve Bullock, has no similar damage-control problems where public lands and the environment are concerned, and according to Public Policy Polling’s latest survey, Bullock is doing a better job of recruiting independents and moderates: 11 percent of voters who chose Trump in 2016 say they’ll vote for Bullock in 2020, while only 2 percent of Hillary Clinton voters favor Daines. The same poll shows him leading Daines by five points among independents. Montana State University’s polling also shows Bullock with a strong advantage among independents, 67 percent to Daines’s 29 percent.

Over the course of his career and two terms as governor, Bullock has established a solid reputation as a reliable conservation advocate. In 2001, as a young lawyer working for the Montana attorney general, Bullock was part of the legal team that successfully defended Montana’s stream-access law in federal court from an attack by wealthy landowners. Not coincidentally, one of his opponents in that case was William Perry Pendley of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, who is currently serving illegally as head of the BLM.

As governor, Bullock has been a regular presence at rallies in Helena in opposition to land transfer and in support of the LWCF. In 2018, he faced down the state attorney general and the Montana land board, including then state auditor Matt Rosendale, to defend a program called Habitat Montana, which uses funds from hunting and fishing license sales to buy land and conservation easements for recreation and wildlife habitat. Bullock, along with Governor Hickenlooper of Colorado and former governor Matt Mead of Wyoming, also stood up to the Trump administration’s attempts to sabotage the federal sage grouse management plan, which resulted from more than a decade of collaboration between public and private entities in 11 states.

This year, Bullock sued the Trump administration for keeping Pendley, his former courtroom adversary, in the position of de facto director of the BLM for more than a year without being confirmed by Congress. Trump did eventually nominate Pendley for the director position but then pulled the nomination in August before Pendley ever had a hearing, possibly because the hearing might have adversely affected the reelection prospects of Daines and Gardner. A federal judge found in Bullock’s favor in September 2020, ordering Pendley to leave his post, but so far Pendley has simply refused. “I have the support of the president,” he told the Powell Tribune, a Wyoming newspaper. Daines said in 2019 that he would likely vote to confirm Pendley and has been silent on the issue of Pendley’s illegal tenure.

Silence may be the defining characteristic of Daines’s approach to public-lands issues. In December 2017, he stunned the conservation community when he introduced a bill that would have stripped protections from about 450,000 acres of wilderness study areas (WSAs) in Montana. “Forty years of D.C. paralysis has frozen our access and use of public lands,” Daines said in a press release announcing the bill, echoing anti-wilderness complaints most commonly heard from the livestock, timber, and petroleum industries, as well as the motorized-recreation community. As I reported at the time, there was virtually no popular support for eliminating the WSAs, and there were no real opportunities for public input. 

The bill generated substantial blowback and calls for more public participation. The ordeal erupted just as Jon Tester was seeking Daines’s support for a Senate bill that would withdraw 30,000 acres of national forestland in the area north of Yellowstone National Park from future mining development. Tester’s bill, called the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, came at the urging of a nonpartisan group of local conservation activists, ranchers, tourism businesses, and prominent Montana companies. 

The idea had the support of then interior secretary Ryan Zinke, who favored making the moratorium permanent. As the bill gathered momentum, Daines’s Republican colleague and former employer, congressman Greg Gianforte, even introduced an identical bill in the House. And yet for a year and a half, Daines declined to formally endorse the Yellowstone mineral withdrawal. The Daines wilderness-study bill was “not put in for any other reason than to divert attention from my [Yellowstone] bill,” Tester told me back in 2018. Daines had hinted that he would throw his support behind Tester’s bill if Tester supported his WSA bill, which was an obvious nonstarter. “It takes a controversial issue and pairs it with an uncontroversial issue,” Tester said. “It’s an effort to clutter it up, when the issue is clear and understandable.” Only in December 2018, following Tester’s victory over Rosendale in the midterms, did Daines finally give a strong endorsement for the Yellowstone mineral withdrawal.

The Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act eventually passed in 2019. That Daines dragged his feet on the bill for so long has not stopped him from claiming credit for it in the 2020 campaign. One recent campaign ad features a member of the coalition that worked for the mineral withdrawal appearing to credit Daines with the success of the legislation. The ad struck a nerve with some of the coalition’s other members. “Daines had to be pressured simply to acknowledge the bill existed,” Beth Kampschror and Liz Purdy, two coalition members, wrote in an op-ed responding to the ad. “That bill didn’t pass because of Steve Daines, it passed in spite of him.”

Republican senator Cory Gardner, right, and Democratic former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper elbow-bump after a debate on October 9, 2020.
Republican senator Cory Gardner, right, and Democratic former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper elbow-bump after a debate on October 9, 2020. (Hyoung Chang/AP)

The drive for the permanent reauthorization and full funding of the LWCF that culminated in the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act has involved thousands of people in dozens of states, and the champions are ordinary citizens who have besieged their representatives and governors with calls and letters, as well as advocacy organizations that have raised the alarm every time the fund faces expiration or an insultingly skimpy budget. Daines has been a consistent and occasionally ardent supporter of the LWCF for most of his tenure in the Senate, but it would be misleading to overstate his prominence over the long haul. Senator Tester has introduced legislation to permanently reauthorize and fully fund the LWCF in every congressional session since 2009, for example, and there are other senators, like Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, and Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington State, who have been more outspoken and unequivocal in their determination to secure the future of the LWCF than Daines. 

Created in 1964 to address the stress that increasing outdoor tourism was putting on the country’s natural areas, the LWCF’s scope would also include a wide range of outdoor recreation and environmental projects, including land acquisitions for new parks, conservation easements, fishing-access sites, wildlife protection, habitat restoration, and community sports facilities. Originally designed to receive up to $900 million annually from federal oil and gas revenues, the LWCF quickly fell prey to congressional appropriators who had more urgent priorities. In the course of more than half a century, Congress habitually raided the LWCF, diverting a total of some $22 billion of LWCF money into the general fund. Over its lifetime, the fund’s annual appropriation from Congress has averaged $388 million.

Without congressional action, the LWCF was scheduled to sunset on September 30, 2015. Throughout the year leading up to the sunset, conservationists pressured elected officials to permanently reauthorize and fully fund the LWCF. Land Tawney, CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a public-lands advocacy organization based in Missoula, Montana, remembers joining conservation leaders in a meeting with Daines sometime in 2014, when Daines was a freshman congressman running for Senate, to seek his support for LWCF reauthorization. “Everybody around that table is singing off the same sheet of music and telling Daines how amazing this program is,” Tawney says. He recalls the group emphasizing the importance of full, dedicated funding and permanent reauthorization. “Then Daines starts in with these talking points, like, ‘What about the maintenance?’ and, you know, ‘We really shouldn’t make any more purchases until we can take care of what we’ve got.’” To Tawney, those talking points seemed to come directly from Utah congressman Rob Bishop, who was chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee from 2015 to 2019. “We were all kind of stunned in that room,” Tawney says.

The drive for the permanent reauthorization and full funding of the LWCF that culminated in the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act has involved thousands of people in dozens of states, and the champions are ordinary citizens who have besieged their representatives and governors with calls and letters, as well as advocacy organizations that have raised the alarm every time the fund faces expiration or an insultingly skimpy budget.

Bishop has been the brains of the anti-public-lands caucus in Congress since the departure of senator Orrin Hatch in 2019. His biggest gripe with the LWCF is that it enables the federal government to buy land to add to the public estate. Hatch, one of Bishop’s ideological forebears and a major figure in the anti-public-land movement in western states, was similarly devoted to reducing the size of the public estate and eroding the authority of federal land-management agencies. Trump’s reduction of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, which is still tied up in federal court, was seen by many as a personal favor to Utah’s congressional delegation and especially to Hatch, who called Obama’s designation of the first monument a “federal land grab.” As a one-term congressman before winning a Senate seat in 2014, Daines had served on the Natural Resources Committee with Bishop, and just days into his freshman Senate term, it would become clear that Bishop’s ideas had rubbed off.

“I am sure the president is aware that the program expires the end of September, and we can wait, but I don’t think we should wait to reauthorize what I believe is, dollar for dollar, the most effective government program we have,” Richard Burr said of the LWCF during a Senate floor speech on January 27, 2015, in remarks about an amendment he was proposing to permanently reauthorize the LWCF. Daines voted no, causing the amendment to fail by a single vote. Explaining the no vote, a Daines spokesman said, “We’ve heard from Montanans that there’s potential to improve transparency in the program, to ensure funds are better utilized to expand access to public lands, and to increase the state’s role in the program.” To that end, Daines proposed his own LWCF amendment, which asked for no direct action but for a vague commitment from the Senate to “convey that reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund should be a priority for Congress and should include improvements in the structure of the program to more effectively manage existing Federal land.” Both amendments were attached to a Keystone XL bill that Obama vetoed, so they wouldn’t have survived anyway, but Daines’s maneuver was still puzzling, and it cost him credibility with many conservationists, who accused him of trying to gum up the works of an otherwise straightforward effort to reauthorize the LWCF. 

After the backlash, Daines learned to support the LWCF without equivocation whenever the chance might arise, but that does not mean he became a singularly hard-charging leader in the fight to save the program. When a viable permanent reauthorization bill emerged in early 2019, it didn’t come from Daines’s desk. It was initiated by Maria Cantwell and introduced in partnership with Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Just a few weeks later, Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, introduced a full funding bill that would go on to inform the LWCF component of the Great American Outdoors Act. Daines sponsored both bills, but so did over a dozen other senators.

With the blessing of Trump and McConnell in the spring of 2020, the Great American Outdoors Act faced few obstructions. Some in the agricultural industry grumbled about how the bill would doom “hundreds of millions of acres of American land and water to a poorly managed future,” and they found an ally in Utah Republican senator Mike Lee, who shares Bishop’s ideological grudge against the LWCF. “In its current form, it enables the federal government to purchase new lands in perpetuity,” Lee said to an almost entirely vacant Senate on June 11, “without accountability, oversight, or any measures to make sure it can actually care for the land that it owns.” When the GAOA came up for a vote on the Senate floor on June 17, it passed by a three-to-one margin, with 73 votes in favor and only 25 votes against. All of the nays were Republicans. 

Trump signed the GAOA into law on August 4 and hastened to maximize the political boost for Daines and Gardner. During an East Room signing ceremony, Trump said the GAOA “would not have been possible without the incredible leadership and hard work of two outstanding senators in particular, and two fine people, Cory Gardner and Steve Daines,” before going on to praise a handful of other Republicans for their work on the bill.

Both campaigns and their PAC surrogates have touted the GAOA as proof of the candidates’ deep commitment to public lands and conservation. One recent mailer, from the Credit Union National Association’s PAC, crowns Daines “Protector of Public Lands and the Great Outdoors.” What the Daines campaign has pitched as an outsize role in the passage of the GAOA owes mostly to fortuitous timing and Mitch McConnell’s desperation to hold on to his position as Senate majority leader. Daines and Gardner did accomplish something remarkable, though: holding Trump’s attention long enough to secure a supportive tweet for an uncontroversial piece of legislation that ought to have been passed five years ago.