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

Congress on Wednesday sent President Donald Trump a major, bipartisan public lands bill that has become a pillar of Republican Cory Gardner’s reelection campaign in Colorado, finalizing the swift passage of a measure seen as an election-year gift to the U.S. senator. 

The U.S. House approved the Great American Outdoors Act, which would achieve the long-held goal of fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund while also tackling the nation’s massive national parks maintenance backlog, by a vote of 310-107. 

Trump has said he will sign the bill. 

The measure moved through Congress at lightning speed relative to the normal pace of legislation after Gardner, who was a prime sponsor of the bill, negotiated the support of Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in March. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been trying for years to secure full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. 

“It shows what can happen when you’re committed to the path of your legislation,” Gardner said in an interview with The Colorado Sun on Wednesday.  “Every state, every county across the country will benefit.”

Gardner said he believes the legislation will create thousands of jobs in Colorado at a time when people are feeling the economic effects of the coronavirus crisis. He said it’s one of the greatest accomplishments of his congressional tenure. 

Democrats and environmental groups with a liberal lean also applauded the bill’s passage.

“Whether it’s urban parks you access to escape the fast pace of the city or hiking trails in our national parks you enjoy over the weekend, Coloradans love and utilize public lands,” Hannah Collazo, the state director for Environment Colorado, said in a written statement. ”This bill is not only an investment in outdoor spaces but also in our emotional, spiritual, and physical health as Coloradans.”

Gardner, who is facing an uphill reelection battle as he seeks a second term, has capitalized on the win. During the Senate’s July 4 recess he toured Colorado to tout his work on the bill. His campaign has also run two television ads boasting of its passage in the Senate.

“Gardner’s law — endorsed by every environmental leader,” a 30-second TV ad released this week says.

YouTube video

Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, is scheduled to make a stop in Colorado on Thursday to celebrate the bill’s passage at Rocky Mountain National Park with Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. 

Even the president weighed in on the legislation’s passage Wednesday. 

“Thanks @SenCoryGardner and @SteveDaines for all your work on this HISTORIC BILL!” Trump tweeted.

Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, is another GOP member of Congress facing a tough reelection bid in November.

The Great American Outdoors act has two key provisions:

  • It mandates that the Land and Water Conservation Fund receive all of the money it was allotted — $900 million annually — from royalties collected on offshore oil and gas drilling. Congress, in the decades since the program was created, has repeatedly diverted the fund’s money.
  • It allocated $9.5 billion over five years to address the National Park Service’s maintenance backlog.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund has been used to help pay for a number of projects in Colorado. 

Meanwhile, the state’s public lands operated by the National Park Service had an estimated maintenance backlog of $2 billion in 2018. 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. 

Democrats, while excited about the bill’s passage, have accused Gardner of trying to “greenwash” his record on the environment through the measure. They point to his decisions not to support tougher regulations on emissions of carbon dioxide and methane and his proximity to the Trump administration, which has rolled back a number of environmental regulations. 

What Gardner is selling is a hollow victory,” state Rep. Edie Hooton, D-Boulder, wrote in an opinion piece published Sunday by The Sun. “… The only thing Gardner really seems to be working on here is how to rebrand his environmental record.”

Gardner has brushed off the criticism as “partisan sour grapes,” but questions remain about his positions on key public lands issues, namely Trump’s nomination of William Perry Pendley as head of the Bureau of Land Management. Pendley has been serving as acting director of the agency. 

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, center, during a tour of abandoned mines in Clear Creek County in August. The Colorado Republican said Friday he will vote “yes” on the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet on Tuesday called for an expedited hearing for Pendley, who has been leading the BLM as acting director for about a year despite not having gone through a confirmation hearing. 

Gardner has declined to say where he stands on the nomination, explaining that he’s waiting for Senate hearings before making his decision. He didn’t say if he supports Bennet’s request for expedited proceedings.

“Obviously there will be a hearing,” Gardner said. “I don’t know when that hearing will be scheduled, but he’s going to face some very difficult and tough questions.”

Another area where Democrats have attacked Gardner is over the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Economy Act, a massive Colorado public lands bill being run by Democratic members of the state’s congressional delegation. Gardner has not thrown his weight behind the measure, citing objections from U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Cortez Republican whose district would be affected by the measure. 

Democrats added the CORE Act into the National Defense Authorization Act as it passed this week out of the U.S. House. Gardner credited U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Boulder, with tacking the measure onto the NDAA, saying it “shows what somebody who is dedicated to passing the bill can make happen.”

But when asked whether he would work to keep the CORE Act as part of the defense bill as it makes its way through the Senate, Gardner said “I don’t think it will happen. I think it’s too late for any amendments here.” 

Gardner said he didn’t have information on when Trump may sign the Great American Outdoors Act into law, but that he has encouraged the president to celebrate lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who pushed for the measure.

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....