A measure to permanently reauthorize the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has helped pay for hundreds of parks and recreation projects across Colorado, passed the U.S. Senate Tuesday.
The fund's renewal -- which passed the Republican-led Senate, 92-8, as part of a package of legislation dealing with parks and conservation -- now heads to the Democrat-led House.
The massive measure combines more than 100 public-lands bills that add more than 350 miles of wild and scenic rivers and 2,600 miles of federal trails. It designates nearly 700,000 acres of new recreation and conservation areas. The bill also withdraws 370,000 acres in Montana and Washington state from mineral development.
Among Colorado provisions in the measure are language calling for a study of designating the site of the Amache World War II internment camp for Japanese Americans as a national historic park, another study of adding the route of explorer Zebulon Pike (for whom Pikes Peak is named) to the national scenic trails system, the addition of 280 acres to Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in Teller County, and the addition of land to Arapaho National Forest.
In other states, it adds a million acres of new wilderness, expands several national parks and creates four new national monuments.
But most focus in Colorado has been on renewing the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which through direct and matching grants from the fund has financed more than 1,000 outdoor recreational and parks projects in the state over the years.
Congress failed to reauthorize the LWCF program before it expired last September, prompting an outcry from the Colorado delegation to Congress.
Both of Colorado's senators supported its renewal.
“After four years of working on this issue, the Senate was finally able to permanently reauthorize the crown jewel of conservation programs, the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, said in a statement shortly after the legislation's Senate passage.
“I have championed this program throughout my time in the Senate because of how important it is to all Coloradans who love our great outdoors," he said. "The program has a direct impact on public lands in Colorado and will be used to protect our state’s natural beauty for future generations. I’m thrilled we were able to finally permanently reauthorize this commonsense program supported by Coloradans across the political spectrum. This is a great day for the future of Colorado’s public lands.”
“Thank you to every Coloradan who has spoken up in support of LWCF, met with me across the state at an LWCF-funded project, and traveled to Washington to advocate for this critical program," said Gardner's Democratic colleague, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet. "It’s your persistence that has led to this historic vote in the Senate to permanently save the conservation fund. After a decade of leading the charge for permanent reauthorization, today is a victory for Colorado and a commitment to future generations.”
The Denver-based conservation group Center for Western Priorities cheered the news of LWCF's passage in the Senate, but noted that the bill does not provide "full, dedicated funding for the program."
“Today’s vote is an important win for our national parks and public lands," said Aaron Weiss, the center's deputy director, in a statement. "LWCF has a 50-year history as America’s most successful parks program, and it deserves permanent reauthorization. We hope the House quickly follows in the Senate's footsteps to send the public lands bill to the President's desk.
"At the same time," Weiss said, "it's imperative that members of Congress reach across the aisle to devote full, dedicated funding to safeguard America’s conservation and recreation future. Year after year, Congress has shortchanged LWCF, appropriating less than half of what is collected for recreation and conservation projects across the country. With permanent reauthorization and full, dedicated funding, America's parks will have the certainty they deserve.”
The LWCF is funded by federal oil and gas lease revenue from offshore drilling. Congress is authorized under the legislation enacted in 1965 to spend $900 million per year to build or maintain projects on public lands but only twice allocated the full amount. Instead, Congress has diverted more than $21 billion from the LWCF trust fund to other purposes.
The Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife estimates the LWCF helped pay for $147 million in state projects and another $120 million for federal projects.
The federal part of the Colorado funding was only $61 million. However, the federal funds acted as seed money to help the state secure additional financing from other public and private sources.
The LWCF has strong bipartisan support in Colorado but it also has endured complaints in Congress about accountability.
Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee until Democrats took over the House in January, called the LWCF a “slush fund.” He blocked a vote last year on reauthorization, leading to the expiration last September.
Congress authorized it initially for 25 years, then renewed for another 25 years until 2015. Congress extended it again, but only until Sept. 30, 2018.
This story draws on reporting from Colorado Politics contributor Tom Ramstack.