Colorado's U.S. senators, Cory Gardner (left) and Michael Bennet.

Colorado's U.S. senators, Cory Gardner (left) and Michael Bennet.

WASHINGTON -- Colorado U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner reintroduced a bill Friday to permanently reauthorize the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which pays for maintenance and new projects in national parks and other public lands.

Congress failed to reauthorize the program before it expired last September, prompting an outcry from the Colorado delegation to Congress.

“For over 50 years, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has helped protect Colorado’s iconic landscapes, expand outdoor recreation activities and boost our local economy," Bennet said in a statement Friday. “Failing to reauthorize LWCF is an affront to future generations who rely on this conservation program to access public lands.”

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 diverted more than $21 billion from the LWCF trust fund to other purposes.

In Colorado, direct and matching grants from the fund have financed more than 1,000 outdoor and recreational 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 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 LWCF has strong bipartisan support in Colorado but it also has endured complaints in Congress about accountability.

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.

The senators from Colorado and other states introduced a bill for a permanent reauthorization but it never reached a vote.

Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee until last month, called the LWCF a “slush fund.” He blocked a vote on reauthorization, leading to the expiration last September.

Bennet said this week, “We must permanently reauthorize and fully fund the program immediately.”

Gardner repeated his support for a permanent LWCF reauthorization during a meeting last month in Grand Junction with the Colorado Canyons Association.

He also wants to add a provision called the Wildfire Technology Act, which would give firefighters greater access to the latest technology to combat wildfires.

The bill for permanent reauthorization would set a minimum amount that Congress must spend for public lands and outdoor recreation. The minimum would be 1.5 percent of the amount generated for the LWCF through oil and gas leases or $10 million, whichever is greater.

The money normally is distributed through four federal agencies -- the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service.

Eight senators from other states joined Bennet and Gardner in reintroducing the bill for permanent LWCF funding.

“It’s been four months since LWCF was allowed to expire despite its proven track record of success and overwhelming bipartisan support,” said Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican. “It is long past time for Congress do the right thing by renewing America’s most successful conservation program.”

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