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

Hikers cross the alpine tundra of Rocky Mountain National Park near Trail Ridge Road.

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators that includes two of Colorado's have introduced an amendment to an appropriations bill that they hope will finally fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

Fully funding the federal program that has benefited Coloradans to the tune of $147 million has been a long-standing battle in Congress for more than a year. 

The LWCF program dates back to the 1950s and the Eisenhower administration. In 1965, the LWCF was fully funded for the first time; since then, Colorado has seen more than 1,000 projects covered by LWCF funding, according to the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife. Its funding doesn't come from tax revenue; it comes from federal oil and gas drilling lease revenues from offshore sites. However, over its history, much of its funding has been siphoned off for other purposes, according to the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for the program.

Tuesday, Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner and Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, along with six other members of the Senate, introduced an amendment on the LWCF to a "mini-omnibus" appropriations bill that covers nine different federal agencies for fiscal year 2020, which began on Oct. 1.

Full funding for the LWCF is $900 million, although it has been funded at that level only twice in its history. In the 2019 budget, the LWCF was funded at $97.5 million, which was $258 million less than its funding in fiscal year 2018. The Trump administration had advocated for $8 million in the president's fiscal year 2019 budget recommendations. 

The amendment offered by the eight senators Tuesday comes in addition to separate legislation offered in both the House and Senate to fully fund the program.

In April, the same group of senators introduced the Land and Water Conservation Fund Permanent Funding Act. While the measure — S.1081 — now has 49 cosponsors, it has yet to move out of its first committee, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. The House's version —  HR 3195 — has 229 co-sponsors, including all four of Colorado's congressional Democrats, but is similarly stalled in the House Natural Resources Committee.

Earlier this year, Congress actually took action on the LWCF, resolving one issue with the program: reauthorization. President Trump signed a measure permanently reauthorizing the program last March. Funding is now the key to keeping the program running.

“The Land and Water Conservation Fund is the crown jewel for conservation projects in Colorado, and now that we were successful in permanently reauthorizing the LWCF, the next step is to make the funding automatic,” Gardner said in a statement Tuesday. “While those conversations are ongoing, it is important to show that we are committed to fully funding the program, and that’s what this amendment does. Our beautiful public lands rely on this critical conservation program, and it’s time for Congress to fully and permanently fund it.”

“After 10 years, our work to permanently reauthorize LWCF paid off earlier this year with the passage of the lands package,” Bennet said. “Now, we must fulfill our promise to the next generation of Americans by fully funding the program. This amendment will provide full funding for LWCF, ensuring the program reaches its full potential this year.”

The other sponsors of Tuesday's amendment include Sens. Richard Burr (R-NC), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Steve Daines (R-MT), Jon Tester (D-MT), Susan Collins (R-ME) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH).

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