WASHINGTON -- Congress headed for adjournment without taking action on renewing the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, but U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner said Thursday he has worked out an agreement with Senate leadership to introduce and vote on legislation next month to reauthorize the fund.
The fund directs federal revenue from offshore oil and gas leases to fund outdoor recreation and conservation projects. Since Congress authorized the fund in 1965, it has provided Colorado with federal grants worth more than $61 million and has helped to leverage about $147 million for local government and state park recreational investments, according to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission.
Senate leaders agreed to vote on the proposal in early January, said Gardner, R-Colorado.
“I believe [reauthorizing the fund] will have overwhelming bipartisan support in the Congress,” he told Colorado Politics.
He and other senators worked out the agreement with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “throughout the day and into the night” Wednesday, he said.
The LWCF became a contentious issue again this week when a continuing resolution the U.S. Senate approved Thursday to fund the government into February did not include provisions reauthorizing the fund.
Colorado lawmakers and environmentalists have been among the harshest critics of Congress for failing to continue the funding after the program expired in September.
Nationwide, it means public lands have lost out on more than $200 million in revenue so far. A Gardner spokesman said public lands suffer from a “$12 billion park maintenance backlog.”
Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet was among the first to criticize the federal lawmakers’ inaction this week.
“Coloradans deserve a Congress responsive to their priorities, but Washington has failed to pass significant public lands legislation for years,” Bennet, a Democrat, said in a statement. “We must find a way to pass a lands package that includes LWCF and new wilderness and recreation designations in Colorado, including the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act.
“Congress’ failure to act on the Land and Water Conservation Fund this year is unacceptable and shows just how broken this place is. We missed an opportunity today, and we should immediately move to permanently reauthorize and fully fund LWCF," he said.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper wrote a letter in July to the state’s congressional delegation asking them to support a permanent reauthorization of the LWCF.
“Altogether, we estimate that Colorado has received nearly $270 million from the LWCF over the past five decades, protecting places such as the Great Sand Dunes National Park, Uncompahgre, Arapaho-Roosevelt, Gunnison, and Rio Grande National Forests, and Canyon of the Ancients National Monument,” the letter said. “LWCF funds are an integral source of funding for trail and outdoor recreation development across Colorado.”
This week, a Hickenlooper spokeswoman said that “we are disappointed that the Republican leadership failed to include it in the package last night given the letter of support of we sent.”
Other criticism came from Colorado environmentalists.
"Despite bipartisan support for LWCF among Colorado's delegation, the lame-duck Congress dropped the ball and failed to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” Kristine Oblock, senior water policy advisor for the environmental group Environment Colorado, told Colorado Politics. “But given that all of us Coloradans get to enjoy the parks and lands the LWCF protects, we remain hopeful that the next Congress will get the job done, and soon.”