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A view of the San Juan Mountains near Telluride. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The U.S. Senate on Wednesday approved a bipartisan bill that would achieve the long-held goal of fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund while also providing money to help tackle the $12 billion maintenance backlog at America’s national parks. 

Colorado, with its vast public lands and numerous national parks, recreation areas, historic sites and monuments, is set to benefit from the measure, called the Great American Outdoors Act. Conservation and environmental groups in the state have long pushed for such legislation. 

The Land and Water Conservation Fund would receive all of the money it is due from royalties collected on offshore oil and gas drilling, or $900 million annually, pumping millions into projects in Colorado. The fund, which has historically only been allocated a fraction of the money it is authorized to receive, has in the past been used to acquire public lands in Colorado, from Summit County to Durango to Cherry Creek State Park.

In 2018 fiscal year there was nearly $2 billion in deferred maintenance at areas operated in Colorado by the National Park Service. That included $84 million in needed repairs at Rocky Mountain National Park; $76 million in deferred maintenance at Mesa Verde National Park; and $21 million in put-off repairs and upgrades at the Colorado National Monument. 

Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. (Provided by Rocky Mountain National Park and the National Park Service)

The Great American Outdoors Act allocates $9.5 billion over five years to address the maintenance backlog.

“So many people have worked together on this bill for so long,” said Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, who helped secure the bill’s passage earlier this year after negotiations with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Donald Trump. “It will be one of the great bipartisan accomplishments of this Congress.”

Gardner called passing the measure in the Senate one of the most important steps for public lands in decades.

Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Senate have been pushing for years to protect and secure full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund with mixed success. The efforts have mostly been led by GOP Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, but in March Gardner and Montana’s Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines announced that they had won the support of McConnell and Trump to push the effort over the finish line.

Read more outdoors stories from The Colorado Sun.

Both Gardner and Daines are facing difficult reelection bids in November, and Democrats have criticized the Great American Outdoors Act as being a political handout. Gardner says that’s just “partisan sour grapes.”

“Those same people would never support me no matter what,” Gardner said in an interview. “My problem is I have two r’s at the end of my name: Gardner and Republican.”

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, center, during a tour of abandoned mines in Clear Creek County in August. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

And while there have been criticisms of the process, there are plenty of Democrats and environmental groups who are cheering the policy, including Colorado’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet. 

“This is the culmination of years of hard work by Coloradans – from county commissioners and local elected leaders to conservation groups, hunters and anglers, and outdoor recreation businesses,” Bennet, who cosponsored the bill, said in a written statement.

Conservation Colorado, a left-leaning environmental and conservation group, also celebrated the legislation’s passage. 

“This critical legislation will play a significant role in Colorado’s path to economic recovery while ensuring that we have more public lands, open space and parks during this time of a pandemic when so many people are finding solace in the outdoors,” Jessica Goad, the nonprofit’s deputy director, said in a written statement. 

The Great American Outdoors Act now heads to the House, where Gardner is hopeful that it will pick up the same kind of bipartisan support it won in the Senate, where the vote was 73 to 25 and met with a round of applause. 

“I’m already working the phones with my House colleagues down the hall to make sure that we get this passed as soon as possible and onto the president’s desk,” he said.

Bipartisan effort not immune to election-year politics

Despite the bipartisan support and work to pass the Great American Outdoors Act, election-year politics were still injected into the process of passing the bill.

Bennet and Gardner clashed over Bennet’s unsuccessful attempt to amend the bill to include the CORE Act, a massive Colorado public lands bill being run by Democratic members of the state’s congressional delegation. Gardner has not supported the measure and has faced attacks from Democrats and liberal conservation and environmental groups for not trying to help it get passed.

“Sen. Gardner has had his chance to support the CORE Act,” Bennet said last week in a virtual campaign event with former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is running to unseat Gardner in November. “He’s refused to support the CORE Act. I don’t understand why.” 

Bennet said Coloradans need to elect Hickenlooper to ensure the CORE Act passes. 

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, speaks to a crowd at the University of Denver as part of a discussion hosted by The Colorado Sun. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Bennet never brought up the amendment on the Senate floor, Gardner said, though if he had, Gardner would have been rejected because he committed not to risk passage of the Great American Outdoors Act by amending it. “Everybody had amendments and the second you start doing that it could have brought the whole bill down,” he said. 

Gardner said the CORE Act has solely become an effort for Democrats to criticize him. He’s expressed concern about the bill because it doesn’t have the support of Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton of Cortez, whose district the measure would affect. 

President Donald Trump has also threatened to veto the CORE Act if it were to pass.

Democrats and Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation have accused each other of not being willing to work together on a solution. 

“I’m not a fool,” Gardner said. “When you have a press conference with John Hickenlooper and the sponsors of the CORE Act, it’s become a partisan, political tool more than anything else. They made this partisan and it’s now just a partisan act.”

(Tipton last summer floated a draft of a public lands bill of his own that he said he was working on with Gardner, but it was never introduced. “It was clear there wasn’t room for negotiation on the CORE Act, so we set it aside but have kept the door open should the coalition be interested in moving forward with some of Rep. Tipton’s proposals,” said Matthew Atwood, a spokesman for Tipton. The congressman offered several amendments when the bill was making its way through the House, two of which were adopted.)

Gardner, meanwhile, plans to tout his record on the Great American Outdoors Act as part of his reelection bid this year. In fact, he’s already run a television ad boasting about his work on the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Democrats, conversely, are running ads attacking Gardner’s broader environmental record, which includes not supporting tougher regulations on emissions of carbon dioxide and methane. 

“They want me to be a liberal Democrat, and I’m not,” Gardner said. “These groups want a Democrat. They want a liberal Democrat. They want somebody who supports the Green New Deal. They want somebody who is going to ban energy development. They want somebody who wants to ban oil and gas.”

Updated at 4:21 p.m. on June 17, 2020: This story has been updated to reflect that President Donald Trump threatened to veto the CORE Act and that several of U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton’s amendments to the measure were adopted.

The Colorado Sun —

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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.

A Colorado College graduate, Jesse worked at The Denver Post from June 2014 until July 2018, when he joined The Sun. He was also an intern at The Gazette in Colorado Springs and The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, his hometown.

Jesse has won awards for long form feature writing, public service reporting, sustained coverage and deadline news reporting.

Email: Twitter: @jesseapaul