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 Senate committee Tuesday approved a bill backed by Colorado's Republican Sen. Cory Gardner to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources passed S.1081 on a 13-7 vote. Gardner is a member of that committee, as is co-sponsor Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington. The measure, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Coloradlo, has been sent to the Senate floor. 

Fully funding the federal program that has benefited Coloradans to the tune of $147 million has been a battle in Congress for well 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. Full funding for the LWCF would cost about $900 million per year.

The LWCF cleared an important hurdle earlier this year: permanent reauthorization, which was signed into law by President Trump in March.

However,  Trump does not support full funding; his 2020-21 budget request recommended slashing the program’s budget by 95%.

The Senate’s LWCF bill, S. 1081, has the support of 49 sponsors, mostly Democrats. Its House counterpart, HR 3195, cleared the House Committee on Natural Resources on Nov. 8 and also awaits action from the full House. Its 232 co-sponsors (218 are Democrats) includes the four Democratic members of Colorado’s House delegation. 

Rep. Scott Tipton, a Colorado Republixan, told Colorado Politics last year he would support full funding for the LWCF but has not signed on as a cosponsor of the 2019 bill.

Action on both the House and Senate bills is significant, given that previous bills in both the House and Senate in the 2017-18 Congress never made it out of committee.

“The Land and Water Conservation Fund is the crown jewel of conservation programs, and now that we have successfully permanently authorized the program, the next step is to make the funding of the program automatic,” Gardner said in a statement Tuesday.

“Colorado projects rely on LWCF funding and fighting year after year about how much money to provide the program does not provide the long-term planning certainty our outdoor and conservation communities deserve. This is a common-sense, bipartisan program that comes at no cost to the taxpayer, and I’m glad to see the committee move this bill forward today to fully and permanently fund this critical conservation program so future generations of Coloradans will have access to our great outdoors.”

A second bill backed by Gardner, the Restore Our Parks Act, also won approval from the same Senate committee Tuesday. It provides $12 billion for a backlog of national park maintenance projects, as well as infrastructure improvements. It also would dedicate as much as $1.3 billion per year for the next five years to continue working on national park maintenance.

The chief sponsor of S. 500 is Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican. It has 45 cosponsors, including Gardner and Bennet.

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