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States, land managers still waiting for details on conservation funding under Great American Outdoors Act

Congress promises its own Land and Water Conservation Fund funding plan if Trump Administration federal land managers don’t provide specifics. “Apparently, they’ve already lost their interest in taking care of our public lands,” said Colorado’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.

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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Funding details promised by the Great American Outdoors Act were due Nov. 2, but state and federal land managers are still waiting for specifics of what is supposed to be a record amount of money for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and deferred maintenance projects. 

The Great American Outdoors Act — brokered in part by Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner and trumpeted by President Donald Trump as they both ran for re-election — directed the full $900 million a year to the LWCF, which uses royalties paid by energy companies to buy federal land for protection. And the legislation spread $9.5 billion over five years toward catching up on an estimated $21.6 billion in delayed upkeep on public lands. It also promised to more than double federal funding to several Western states that rely on LWCF support to acquire and protect public lands and access.

But fear is growing that the promises of the Great American Outdoors Act — which had bipartisan support this election year — were more about politics than public lands. 

The deadline for the Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service to submit its project lists for deferred maintenance and LWCF projects was last week. The agencies submitted lists for maintenance projects on time. But the LWCF lists arrived a week after the Nov. 2 deadline, following a Nov. 9 memo from the Trump Administration that delegated authority to the Interior and Agriculture departments to release the LWCF funding lists. 

The broad-stroke lists have left state and federal land managers scratching their heads. 

The lists included no details on specific projects or costs, even though those details — like $116 million for 61 ready-to-go BLM, Fish and Wildlife and National Park Service projects — were circulated by federal land agencies earlier this year when lawmakers were studying the Great American Outdoors Act. (The act requires “a detailed description of each project, including the estimated expenditures from the fund for the project for applicable fiscal years.”)

And perhaps most troubling is the Interior Department’s Nov. 9 plan for spending the LWCF’s $900 million. The note from Interior Sec. David Bernhardt to the U.S. Senate allocated only $2.5 million to the Bureau of Land Management for land acquisition. The Forest Service’s list of 36 LWCF projects totaling $100 million included a note that one project was in Colorado’s White River National Forest. The White River National Forest’s only request for LWCF funding for Fiscal 2021 was for $8.5 million to acquire and protect Garfield County’s 488-acre Sweetwater Lake property

The White River National Forest has requested $8.5 million in funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to support its acquisition and protection of 488 acres around Sweetwater Lake bordering the Flat Tops Wilderness in Garfield County. (Todd Winslow Pierce, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Calls and emails to state BLM and Park Service officials were directed to the Interior Department in Washington, D.C., which did not respond. White River officials said they had not received any information about LWCF funding for Sweetwater Lake, which was acquired by conservation groups this spring with a plan to transfer the property over to the Forest Service. 

“The monumental nature of the Great American Outdoors Act deserves more information so the private sector can engage and we know where these investments will be made,” said Jessica Turner with the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, a coalition of 33 outdoor organizations representing more than 110,000 businesses. 

Republican lawmakers have long supported directing LWCF support to deferred maintenance of federal lands, which the Forest Service estimates at $5.2 billion and the Interior Department estimates to be $16.4 billion. The Republicans have been more reticent to support an expansion of federal lands. The recent reports from federal land managers reflect that, with fewer dollars earmarked for expanding acreage under the Forest Service, Park Service, BLM and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Bernhardt isn’t so sure about that $16.4 billion assessment of needed upkeep. His Nov. 2 memo on deferred maintenance spending plans noted that his personal inspection of dozens of locations “led me to conclude that the condition assessments of facility needs have been inconsistent.” 

“In addition, the orders developed by the respective units often fail to accurately reflect the actual project costs that will go into the effort of completing the repair,” Bernhardt wrote. 

He declined to provide a detailed list, citing the lack of precise price tags for the Interior Department’s estimated $17.3 billion in deferred maintenance and repairs. 

Below the statement was a barely comprehensible cut-and-paste from a spreadsheet with 69 projects totaling $1.6 billion. 

The Interior’s $2.5 million LWCF allocation for the BLM indicates the Interior has canceled six long-planned land acquisition projects in Alaska, California, Idaho and Montana — for $23.6 million — that were included in lists circulated to federal lawmakers earlier this year as examples of how the Great American Outdoors Act would impact Western states. 

“Nearly all of the six Bureau of Land Management projects cut by the agency, without any input from Congress, were critical for outdoor recreation access to our public lands, and were particularly important to the motorized community,” said Turner with the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, which last week cheered a federal report showing outdoor recreation contributing $788 billion to the national economy. “These projects are particularly important right now, with our economy in crisis, and expanded access to the outdoors critical to managing the COVID-19 epidemic.”

The Trump Administration this summer supported the Great American Outdoors Act, especially in Western states like Colorado, where Republican Sen. Gardner was in a hotly contested election race with former Gov. John Hickenlooper. 

President Donald J. Trump displays his signature after signing H.R. 1957- The Great American Outdoors Act Tuesday, August 4, 2020, in the East Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour)

Gardner, who anchored his reelection campaign on the major lands bill, lost his race against former Gov. John Hickenlooper. Emails to his press office asking about funding for the act were not returned. 

“Apparently they’ve already lost their interest in taking care of our public lands,” Colorado’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet said in an emailed statement. “Coloradans worked for years to secure full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The fact that the Trump Administration is failing to follow through and meet LWCF deadlines, while not surprising, demonstrates a serious lack of commitment to conservation.”

A spokeswoman with Colorado Parks and Wildlife said the agency is waiting for information on project lists, official funding, timelines and whether the state grants the agency applied for have been approved.

“Federal support is especially critical at a time when state budgets are strained by the need to respond to the current COVID crisis and its indirect effects,“ said Bridget Kochel with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

“Our plan is to continue to work with our federal partners and follow-up about our Colorado LWCF projects that are expected to receive final approval by March 1.”

The U.S. Senate’s Appropriations Committee on Nov. 10 released funding recommendations for the Interior Department and Forest Service that provides specific details. The committee plan directs $54.1 million to the BLM and $120 million to the Forest Service for land acquisition. The committee’s list for LWCF acquisition projects includes $8.5 million for the Forest Service for Sweetwater Lake, $20.5 million for “recreational access” on BLM lands, $1 million for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s San Luis Valley Conservation Area and $850,000 for Dinosaur National Monument.

The committee, in its allocation recommendations said it was “disappointed by the lack of specific bureau- and project-level information” offered by the Interior and Agriculture department secretaries and dismissed Bernhardt’s issues with precise price tags for repairs as “insufficient reason to withhold more specific costs by project.”

The committee directed the two departments “to provide specific project information, including estimated costs by project, as soon as possible,” noting that it intended to fund LWCF through final appropriations — without or without the department lists. 


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