Gardner, Bennet help find work-around to save conservation fund

Author: Marianne Goodland - July 25, 2018 - Updated: August 9, 2018

LWCFHikers cross the alpine tundra of Rocky Mountain National Park near Trail Ridge Road. (Mark Harden, Colorado Politics)

A handful of bipartisan members of the U.S. Senate Tuesday came up with a different way to make permanent the  Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which helps pay for outdoor projects in Colorado and elsewhere, by inserting it into a required federal spending bill.

The LWCF gets his money from federal oil and gas drilling lease revenues from offshore sites. It was the brainchild of President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s and was fully funded starting in 1965. Its recommended funding is $900 million per year, although it rarely gets the full amount.

Tuesday, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper joined the chorus of those calling for Congress to permanently reauthorize the fund.

More than 1,000 outdoor and recreational projects in Colorado have been awarded LWCF grants. Those grants must be leveraged with other dollars, so its impact goes way beyond the $61 million the Centennial State has been awarded over the years, at roughly $750,000 per year.

Total funding for the 1,030 projects is estimated by the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife at $147 million. Another $120 million for federal projects in Colorado, such as Rocky Mountain National Park and Dinosaur National Monument, also have benefited from the fund.

President Donald Trump’s proposed 2019 budget would slash the fund to as low as $8 million per year, down from the $400 million the fund received in the 2017 budget.

Congress allowed the fund to lapse in 2015, with conservative critics complaining that too much of the fund’s money went for federal rather than state projects. A compromise was reached to extend the fund until Sept. 30 of this year.

There are two congressional bills that would permanently reauthorize the fund but both are stuck in committees. The Senate measure was sent to a committee on energy and natural resources in April where it has sat ever since. Gardner is a member of that committee.

In the House, a subcommittee on water, power and oceans, chaired by U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs, has been sitting on the House version for almost 18 months.

Tuesday, Colorado Sens. Cory Gardner, a Republican, and Michael Bennet, a Democrat, were part of a bipartisan effort to solidify the program’s future by amending it into a mini-omnibus appropriations bill that pays for agriculture, financial services and general government, interior, transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

That measure cleared the House on a 217-199 vote on July 19. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the bill July 23 on a 31-0 vote.

Congress needs to take immediate action to permanently authorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and I’m glad to have a group of bipartisan senators working closely together to find a solution,” Gardner said in a statement Wednesday. “Colorado’s beautiful public lands rely on this conservation program, and our amendment will make sure that these vital conservation resources remain available.”

Bennet added that “with LWCF’s expiration date looming in September, we need to pass this amendment to maintain this critical conservation tool for future generations. Congress should also provide LWCF the full dedicated funding it deserves.”

Gardner and Bennet are also cosponsors of the legislation that would permanently authorize the LWCF.

Bennet and Gardner also are cosponsoring the bipartisan Restore Our Parks Act to address the $12 billion maintenance backlog at the National Park Service (NPS).

“For several years, we’ve seen the effects of chronic underfunding of our public land management agencies—and the National Park Service maintenance backlog is one of the most glaring examples,” Bennet said in a statement. “National Parks not only contribute to our economy, but are cornerstones of the legacy we’ll leave our children and grandchildren. We must pass this bill to reduce the maintenance backlog, while providing robust funding to our land management agencies at large. Only then will we hand off these iconic places in better shape for the next generation.”

Bennet’s office said congressional aid for park maintenance has dwindled 40 percent over the last decade. Their bill would created a fund to address that backlog. pulling the money from same source as the LWCF, leases on offshore drilling sites.

The bill could deliver up to $6.5 billion for parks over the next five years.

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.