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A trail in Telluride, Colorado. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

A decades-old program that provides grants to public lands and environmental projects in Colorado and other states could be fully funded in perpetuity after Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner and others negotiated the support of President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. 

The Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has poured about $272 million into projects in Colorado over 50 years, would receive $900 million annually under a bill expected to soon be introduced and debated in Congress. The bill also would direct $1 billion a year to address the backlog of maintenance in the nation’s national parks.

“This is a historic conservation victory,” Gardner, a Republican, said Wednesday in an interview with The Colorado Sun. 

The LWCF was created in 1965 but has never been allocated all of the money it’s due from royalties collected on offshore oil and gas drilling. About $40 billion has flowed into the fund since it was established, 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.

This has set up a years long, bipartisan struggle to secure the appropriation the fund was promised

Gardner has been working on the LWCF since joining the Senate six years ago. Last year he helped pass legislation to permanently reauthorize the program, which the president signed, but efforts to secure the full funding for the program stalled. 

The legislation represents a political gift to Gardner, who faces a difficult 2020 bid for reelection and has been criticized by Democrats for not doing enough to protect the environment and bolster protections for public lands. It could also help Trump, who is trying to gather support for his own reelection in Western states where the LWCF has an outsized impact. 

Sen. Cory Gardner speaks before a campaign rally for President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence at the World Arena in Colorado Springs Thursday, February 20, 2020. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“I am calling on Congress to send me a bill that fully and permanently funds the LWCF and restores our National Parks,” Trump tweeted on Tuesday. “When I sign it into law, it will be HISTORIC for our beautiful public lands.”

Trump said the effort was “all thanks to” Gardner and Montana’s Republican Sen. Steve Daines, who also is facing a tough 2020 reelection bid. The measure is being fast-tracked by McConnell, a stunning development for legislation that has been long stalled in Congress and in a chamber that often moves at a snail’s pace on policy.

Conservation groups and Democrats, including Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, were also celebrating the breakthrough.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat who has carried legislation to fully fund LWCF, underscored the surprise of the change in course, calling it a “miracle” Wednesday during a news conference. 

The movement on the LWCF funding also comes as Gardner has been working to spread a message about his joint accomplishments with Trump on behalf of Colorado. Democrats have blasted the alliance as being bad for health care, reproductive rights and the environment.

MORE: Cory Gardner goes all-in with Donald Trump, says the results for Colorado “are simply astounding”

Gardner said he went to the White House on Feb. 27 with Daines and McConnell to meet with Trump about supporting the bill, the culmination of years of lobbying on behalf of LWCF. Top members of the president’s cabinet were there, Gardner said. “(We) talked about the value it was to the economy and our outdoors. The president agreed. He flat out said: ‘You put a bill that has the parks bill and LWCF in it, fully funded, and I’ll sign it.’”

Congress has routinely refused to give the fund the $900 million it’s authorized to have. This year it’s slated to receive $495 million, the highest amount in 17 years.

Environmental groups have been pushing for years to stop those diversions, with Democrats attacking Gardner for not doing enough to help bring change. The Sierra Club even recently ran an ad blasting the senator over LWCF funding. 

But groups like the Wilderness Society and Center for Western Priorities applauded the funding bill this week.

Democrats see public lands and the environment as a key line of attack against Gardner in 2020 and responded to the LWCF news this week by pointing out other parts of the Republican’s record.

“Sen. Gardner voted to put a coal lobbyist in charge of the EPA,” tweeted former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is running to unseat Gardner in November. “He’s refused to support the CORE Act, which would protect 400,000 acres of Colorado public lands.”

Hickenlooper was referring to Andrew Wheeler, the EPA’s administrator and a former coal lobbyist, and to the CORE Act, a massive Colorado public lands bill being run by Democratic members of the state’s congressional delegation that Gardner does not support.

“Did you ask John Hickenlooper how he would vote if he were in the Senate?” Gardner asked  during the interview about the LWCF funding bill. “He would vote ‘yes.’”

Trump’s own budget called for sending less than $15 million to the LWCF, which makes his reversal this week especially notable, and also raised questions about whether the decision was motivated by politics. 

But Gardner and the bipartisan group of senators working on the bill brushed off that notion.

“We made a convincing case how important this was. And credit to the president for recognizing the important, historic conservation victory this could be for our state and the country,” Gardner said. “We worked him. We went to the mat. We went to battle. And he agreed.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said he didn’t care about the plan’s politics, only that it helps his state and others across the country. “Politics be damned, let’s get this done,” Manchin said, standing next to Gardner at a Capitol news conference on Wednesday.

Daines, too, downplayed the politics, saying “this is a bipartisan moment.”

Bennet was also at the news conference, where he stood next to Gardner to celebrate the news and vowed to help get the measure passed. 

“I look forward to having us roll up our sleeves to make sure we take nothing for granted,” said Bennet, another LWCF champion.

Passage of the bill, however, is not guaranteed, though the bipartisan support will likely help. McConnell is allowing it to bypass a committee hearing  and the the measure could come before the full Senate for a vote in the coming weeks. It will need to pass the Senate and the U.S. House before it can be signed into law by Trump. 

“It is a priority for the President. And it is a priority for me,” McConnell said in a written statement. “We will turn to it in a timely manner.

The LWCF has been used for many projects in Colorado, most often to acquire lands for public use, from Summit County to Durango to Cherry Creek State Park. The Eagle Valley Land Trust, for example, hopes to tap the fund for $8.5 million to purchase Sweetwater Lake and 488 acres of privately-owned property surrounded by National Forest above Dotsero for public access.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....