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 Reporters pose questions to Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., on his way to a vote as an 11th-hour Republican rescue mission to keep President Donald Trump from a Senate defeat on his signature issue of building barriers along the southwest border seems near collapse, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, March 13, 2019. 

WASHINGTON — Some U.S. Senate Republicans -- including Colorado's Cory Gardner -- joined Democrats on Tuesday in criticizing the Trump administration for plans to cut back on funding for public lands in Colorado and nationwide.

The senators described the fund that pays for maintenance, projects, and acquisition of new land for national parks, forests, and other federal property as a wise investment that creates jobs and protects the environment.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is considering legislation that would set a $900 million a year minimum expenditure for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Since Congress created the LWCF program in 1965, about $278 million of the federal funding has been spent in Colorado.

“We’ve got to get this bill done,” Gardner said during a hearing. “This is the crown jewel.”

Colorado's other U.S. senator, Democrat Michael Bennet, also backs the bill.

“After permanently reauthorizing LWCF earlier this year, we now must fulfill our promise to the next generation of Americans by fully funding the program,” Bennet said in April when the measure was introduced. “Consistent full funding will ensure LWCF reaches its potential to protect and promote access to America's parks, rivers, forests, and public lands. That includes the hundreds of projects in Colorado that span every county and benefit our statewide economy.”

The Senate hearing follows a Trump administration proposal to drastically cut back the Land and Water Conservation Fund subsidy in the 2020 annual budget. The budget would use money from the fund to reduce an estimated $16 billion maintenance backlog at national parks but spend nothing for new projects or property.

The plan has prompted sharp criticism from conservationists and politicians from western states.

Gardner did not directly criticize President Donald Trump but did speak about the importance of the fund for what he said was Colorado’s $28 billion outdoor economy.

“The legislation we have before us now is an opportunity to make sure that it has the funds necessary to continue providing public access, public opportunities, and enjoyment of our great and wonderful public lands in Colorado and elsewhere,” Gardner said.

He asked whether some of the money could help make wilderness areas more accessible to visitors.

“In Colorado, we have about 35% of the land that is held by the federal government,” Gardner said. “We know that about 300,000 acres of those lands are inaccessible.”

Lauren Imgrund, president of the National Association of State Outdoor Recreation Liaison Officers, told Gardner choices on how Land and Water Conservation Fund money is spent are partially a matter of state discretion.

Accessibility most often refers to building roads or creating public recreation areas.

“In general, these funds absolutely can be used for that kind of activity,” Imgrund said.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is authorized for as much as $900 million a year in federal funding but has reached that level only twice in its history. The pending legislation would require the maximum amount each year.

Money for the fund comes from government leases on federal land for oil and gas extraction.

Susan Combs, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for policy, management and budget, said the Trump administration’s top priority for national parks at the moment is good maintenance rather than expansion. She said they need to be safe for visitors.

The maintenance backlog includes crumbling bridges and roads, deteriorating sewer and electrical systems, and buildings that need repair. 

“We are the land stewards of the stuff we already own,” she said.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, said that although Congress has authorized the fund to continue, “the program does not have any certainty of funding, as evidenced by the president’s budget proposal, which essentially zeroed out [fund] appropriations.”

Instead, “Permanent funding is the next step Congress must take,” Manchin said.

Conservationists added their voices to the calls for permanent funding.

“Protecting Colorado's natural wonders requires sustained stewardship — and money,” Erik Dumont, a spokesman for Environment America and Environment Colorado, told Colorado Politics. Funding for the fund "has helped Colorado preserve and increase access to public lands across the state, from Rocky Mountain National Park and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, to Montbello Central Park in Denver and the Animas River Greenway trail in Durango.”

Scott Braden, wilderness and public lands advocate for Conservation Colorado, said in a statement, "Every Coloradan — rural, urban and everywhere in between — will benefit from a fully funded Land and Water Conservation Fund. Our entire legislative delegation should put aside any partisan differences, work together and pass a bill to get us there." 

CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, a headline overstated the amount of money that would be dedicated to the conservation fund.

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