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Outdoors

U.S. House coalesces at 11th hour to try to save Land and Water Conservation Fund

Rep. Ken Buck, a Republican, remains the only Colorado delegate to not express support for reauthorization of the massive fund, marking a rare alignment of Colorado’s diverse D.C. delegation.

The Painted Wall in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. In 2017, the park used Land and Water Conservation Fund support to purchase 2,494 acres of land that allowed for better access to the park. The reauthorization of the fund moved out of committee and to the U.S. House floor on Thursday, only 17 days before it is set to expire, promising a vote that could keep the 64-year-old fund alive. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)
The Painted Wall in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. In 2017, the park used Land and Water Conservation Fund support to purchase 2,494 acres of land that allowed for better access to the park. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)
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A rare instance of bipartisanship in Washington, D.C., on Thursday yielded legislation that would permanently support a 54-year-old fund that has invested more than $268 million in Colorado’s outdoors.

And the new bill could spur a sizable increase in federal support for recreation and access in the state.

The Natural Resources Committee — helmed by Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop, a vocal critic of federal expansion of public lands — approved a bill that would permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, set to expire at the end of this month.

The bill, introduced by Arizona Democrat Rep. Raul Grijalva in January 2017, has languished in that committee for more than 18 months.

The measure — supported by a coalition of 235 co-sponsors in the 435-member House — would direct offshore royalty payments from energy extractors toward the $900 million annual fund.

All that money, however, is rarely spent on fund projects. More than half of it is redirected. Since the LWCF was established in 1965, about $40 billion has been deposited into the fund, but only $18.4 billion has been appropriated by Congress, with $11.2 billion of that going toward federal land acquisition and $4.7 billion for state grants and national park grants.

The LWCF reauthorization legislation proposes an amendment that requires 40 percent of all fund money be allocated to state programs, promising a large spike in funding for state programs, which had withered to a small percentage of the fund under the Obama administration.

An August report by the Congressional Research Service showed that over the life of the fund’s $18.4 billion in allocations, more than 61 percent went toward the federal acquisition of land and 25 percent went to state grants. Those allocations don’t match the legislation’s original wording, which directed 60 percent of its funds to states and 40 percent for federal purposes.

President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2019 federal budget called for a 90 percent cut in the LWCF, a $258.3 million reduction from the previous year’s allocation. Colorado Republican Rep. Scott Tipton on Thursday signed on as a co-sponsor of the reauthorization bill. Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Republican from Colorado Springs, serves on the Natural Resources Committee and voted to advance the reauthorization legislation.

Rep. Ken Buck, a Republican, remains the only Colorado delegate to not express support for reauthorization of the fund, marking a rare alignment of Colorado’s diverse D.C. delegation.

“I think that speaks to the bipartisan nature of the program and its original intent of keeping communities and local economies sustained and getting people outside,” said Beau Kiklis, who is with the Colorado Outdoor Business Alliance, a group of outdoor and outdoor-loving businesses that advocate for public lands and the environment.

In 2015, when the Land and Water Conservation Fund first expired, Bishop floated legislation to fix what he called “failures” of the fund. His Protecting America’s Recreation and Conservation Act aimed to return the fund to its original intent, directing more money to state programs and less to federal acquisition of new land. As chairman of the influential Natural Resources Committee and a vocal critic of the federal government’s expansion of public lands, he has spent three years blocking the passage of legislation seeking to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Then, on Thursday, he suddenly advanced reauthorization legislation with a promised amendment that would direct more money to state and local programs.

“This bill, along with additional action we took today, ensures that Congress adequately funds the lands it already owns and realigns the fund back to its original goal of ensuring that hunters, fishermen and families have access to recreational activities,” Bishop said in the statement.

A hiker on a scree field in the Collegiate Range
A hiker making headway through a dramatic section of the Continental Divide Trail through the Collegiate Range in Colorado. Backers of the trail say money from the Land and Water Conservation fund is needed to move about 14 miles of trail off of a highway east of Steamboat Springs. The project also would open up open prime elk habitat for sportsmen by providing access to land owned by the Colorado State Land Board. (Dean Krakel, Special to the Colorado Sun)

The Natural Resources Committee on Thursday also advanced the bipartisan Restore Our Parks Act, which directs half of all revenues paid to the U.S. government from oil, gas, coal and alternative-energy development on federal land toward the National Park Service’s $12 billion backlog of deferred maintenance.

The act’s funding — which totals $6.5 billion over the next five years — would help the Park Service repair roads, bridges and infrastructure. Colorado Sens. Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet are backing sister legislation in the Senate that would establish the “National Park Service Legacy Restoration Fund” to address delayed maintenance in national parks, which includes $238.1 million in repairs at Colorado’s national parks and monuments, including $84.2 million in work at Rocky Mountain and $70.7 million at Mesa Verde.

In August, 70 of Colorado outdoor businesses sent letters to all nine of Colorado’s political leaders in Washington, imploring their support for reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The letter, sent by the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, said that without the fund, critical Colorado sections of the 40-year-old National Scenic Trail that stretches from Canada to Mexico would not be completed. The letter also showed how the fund’s $268 million investment in Colorado has fueled the state’s growing $28 billion outdoor-recreation industry, supporting 229,000 jobs and generating $2 billion in state and local taxes.

Hikers with a mountain in the background
Two Continental Divide Trail hikers resting on Georgia Pass, which traverses Park and Summit counties in Colorado. The trail runs about 800 miles across Colorado. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A September survey of 822 business owners in Colorado, Montana, Nevada and New Mexico showed overwhelming support — 82 percent — for the reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. In Colorado, 85 percent of the business owners told the survey takers at Strategies 360 that Congress should reauthorize the fund compared with the 4 percent who said it should not. And 81 percent of the Colorado business owners said the fund had a positive impact on the state’s economy.

Last spring, the Colorado-based American Alpine Club brought 60 climbers and access advocates to Washington, D.C., for it’s “Climb the Hill” rally. They met with politicians from across the West, urging support for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

“We are feeling really optimistic because we know members of Congress have heard not just from climbers but from the whole outdoor community,” said Maria Povec, the club’s head of policy and advocacy.

The outdoor industry is marveling at the sudden change of heart by Bishop, whom Outside magazine labeled as “Environmentalist’s Public-Lands Enemy Number One.” His home state of Utah lost the influential and lucrative Outdoor Retailer trade shows to Colorado as the industry decamped from the Beehive State in protest of policies promoted by Bishop that supported the dismantling of national monuments.

Earlier this year, Bishop sponsored the bipartisan, bicameral Red Not Red Tape Act, which promises to increase outdoor-recreation opportunities on federal lands.

“That really blew our minds,” Povec said of the legislation, which is championed by the outdoor industry. “We’d like to think that Rep. Bishop has come to realize the power of the outdoor industry, and if he wants to advance his political career, he needs to be more responsive to the outdoor industry.”