DENVER – The push by many in Colorado to get Congress to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund has reached a fever pitch 10 days before it is set to expire.
The U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources passed a compromise measure to renew the fund, which for more than 50 years has provided funding for outdoor recreation and conservation efforts across the country. Congress originally authorized the fund over two 25-year periods, then reauthorized it again in 2016 through September of this year.
Since the fund’s establishment in the mid-1960s, Colorado has received more than $265 million from it, which has been put toward an array of public land projects, the acquisition of some land for conservation purposes and the building and restoration of outdoor recreation facilities.
The fund receives its money through offshore drilling royalties, costs taxpayers nothing and mostly has bipartisan support in Congress. But some members have disagreed on how much funding it should receive every year and whether the fund should be permanently reauthorized or only reauthorized temporarily.
Some say that the fund is too often used by the federal government to acquire lands from private landowners, but proponents of the fund say that land needs to be conserved and protected, and outdoor-industry business owners say they couldn’t do without it.
“It’s so important to a business like ours because we bill ourselves as a product for the outdoor lifestyle,” said Patrick Webber, who along with his brother created Denver-based Fourpoints Energy Bar, which they market to outdoorsmen and women. “Without those public places to go play, without access to those protections that LWCF provides, there wouldn’t be much of a market for our product either.”
But other things, like the renovations at the Montbello Open Space Park, and popular attractions like the Evergreen Lake ice skating rink, Confluence Whitewater Park in Denver and Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, would not have happened without the fund.
“The Land and Water Conservation fund is one of the premier parks programs in the nation, and what it does is provide funding to a variety of different open spaces, from National Parks, to Civil War historic battlefields, to baseball diamonds, to local parks and playgrounds,” said Jessica Goad of Conservation Colorado, one of several groups in Colorado urging Congress to permanently reauthorize the fund.
Nearly all of Colorado’s congressional delegation has supported the permanent reauthorization. The bill that passed out of the Natural Resources Committee would do that, but doesn’t commit to fully funding the program. It would also commit about 40 percent of the fund’s money to grants for local municipalities, states and national parks in a compromise with those who think the government has bought too much land in recent years.
The fund can be allocated up to $900 million each year by Congress but rarely receives that much. About half that amount was allocated during the past fiscal year. But President Trump’s 2019 budget proposal has proposed slashing the funding to the program by about 90 percent.
In Colorado, Sens. Michael Bennet (D) and Cory Gardner (R) cosponsor a bill to permanently reauthorize the fund. Reps. Jared Polis (D), Ed Perlmutter (D), Diana DeGette (D), Mike Coffman (R) and Scott Tipton (R) are cosponsors of the bill approved by the committee. Rep. Doug Lamborn, who sits on the Natural Resources Committee, voted in favor of advancing the legislation, the Colorado Sun reported.
In a letter sent to House leadership in late August, Polis, Tipton, Perlmutter and DeGette urged the permanent reauthorization of the fund, saying that for Colorado, it is “a critical, impactful, and taxpayer friendly program.”
They argued that the fund is core to the outdoors economy in Colorado, to which they say 230,000 jobs and nearly $10 billion in wages is directly tied.
Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., has so far been the lone holdout on supporting the fund’s permanent reauthorization. In a statement Thursday, he pointed to the land management issue as his reasoning and saying more of a say should be put in the hands of local governments.
“I trust Coloradans to steward out state’s beautiful lands and natural resources,” Buck said in a statement. “Any reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation fund should empower local landowners, county commissioners, and state officials to play a greater role in the process of managing our lands.”
The House measure has 235 cosponsors and the Senate measure has 13, including Bennet and Gardner, who are original cosponsors of the measure and have long pushed for its passage since it was introduced in April 2017.
A survey of business owners in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Montana released this month showed 81 percent of respondents want the fund reauthorized, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported. And on Thursday, a host of Colorado lawmakers sent a letter to Colorado’s congressional delegation urging them to try and get the funding passed in the next 10 days before the Sept. 30 expiration.
“We urge you to work diligently towards permanently reauthorizing this program with full and dedicated funding,” they wrote. “Doing so is in the best interest of all Coloradans and the future of Colorado.