INSIGHTS | Left won’t take Gardner at his word on support for parks

Author: Joey Bunch - July 23, 2018 - Updated: August 9, 2018

Cory Gardner parksU.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma. talks to a vender and shakes a visitor’s hand at the Outdoor Retailer Show in Denver in January. (Photo by Joey Bunch/Colorado Politics)

Environmentalists are hitting U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner where it hurts him most: On Colorado’s great outdoors.

Part of the charm and, I’d argue, success of the Republican farm boy from small-town Yuma is his affability, and the inability of the left to get his goat. But his camp has fought back against the suggestion that he doesn’t back parks and public lands.

Gardner is taking hard shots from the left this summer. It started last September when President Donald Trump signed a $1.3 trillion spending bill. With fiscal conservatives going nuts over government spending under Republican rule, in May Trump proposed raiding $15 billion that already was approved, rescinding the appropriation.

The Land Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which puts money into parks and other public lands, stood to lose about $16 million. The money supports parks, public lands and public waters, and it doesn’t cost regular taxpayers a dime. The money in the fund comes from leases on offshore oil and gas drilling. Its benefit can be found in more than 1,000 outdoor projects in Colorado alone.

Full federal funding is living on borrowed time, however. The window closes on Sept. 30, unless Congress restores the cuts.

The rescission bill got bottled up by a procedural vote on bringing it out of committee in the Senate last month, a surprise 48-50 outcome, when two Republicans joined Democrats. Gardner says he voted to bring the bill out for a debate so he could put in an amendment to restore the funding to the LWCF.

That amendment and the vote on the bill itself never happened, however. While they seem to be on the same side, environmentalists are suspicious of Gardner, because political ties are shallow when they cross party lines.

Gardner failing to get the chance to try to put the money back in the fund, as his opponents view it,  is the same as being in support of taking it out. The bill authorizing the cuts was never voted on, however, so to say he supported the cuts is conjecture.

On the other hand, Alyssa Roberts of the League of Conservation Voters, said the procedural vote is not the whole story.

“Gardner supported rushing it to the floor instead of fixing things like LWCF in committee through normal Senate process,”  she told me. “Odd, because he’s even on the Budget Committee himself, one of the committees in charge of the bill. A vote for the discharge bill is a vote to advance the LWCF cuts.”

Within days after the vote, the League of Conservation Voters launched digital ads costing more than $50,000  calling out Gardner and Republican Sen. Steve Daines of Montana for “refusing to keep their word” to save the public lands conservation program.

Gardner can’t say it loudly enough how strongly he supports the LWCF. The day before the procedural vote in question, Gardner spoke a bipartisan press conference in support of restoring the outdoor fund.

On the Senate floor on July 12, he called the LWCF “the crowned jewel of our nation’s conservation programs.” He noted that he was part of a group of bipartisan senators trying to save it.

“We talked about the need to have this program reauthorized again before it expires,” Gardner said. “The deadline is now just about 78 days away. I must also mention that we have yet to fulfill our promise on funding for LWCF. We need to fully fund the program, something I hope we can do in the near future.

“While I believe the structure of the Restore Our Parks bill that I talked about is sufficient that the same will not happen here, we need to ensure our full commitment to this new effort so it doesn’t suffer the same fate, making sure that we have the funding promised by Congress,” he said. “I urge my colleagues to find a bipartisan path forward to permanently authorize and to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, because access to the lands that we are trying to maintain is as important as the parks themselves.”

The League of Conservation Voters noted that the Restore Our Parks bill to address the maintenance backlog uses some of the same offshore drilling revenue that’s supposed to go to the LWCF.

Because the GOP, as a whole, is pushing cuts, the environmental left is putting a combative squeeze on Republican sympathizers.

“If Cory Gardner really cared about saving our best parks program, he wouldn’t have voted to slash $16 million from LWCF hours after proclaiming his support at a press conference,” said Roberts, the Coloradan who was Sen. Michael Bennet’s campaign spokeswoman two years ago. “He’d also have used his position on the Budget Committee and sway with Senate leadership to remove the LWCF cuts from Trump’s rescission bill. And he’d be cosponsoring the bipartisan bill to stop shortchanging public lands by permanently reauthorizing LWCF with full, dedicated funding.

“From what we’ve seen so far, Gardner is all talk and no action,” Roberts added. “He’s trying to take credit in speeches and press conferences while standing on the sidelines every chance he has to actually save the Land and Water Conservation Fund.”

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.