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The 77-acre Sweetwater Lake above the Colorado River near Dotsero is part of a 488-acre parcel a coalition of conservation groups is buying in hopes of transferring the property into the White River National Forest. (Provided by The Conservation Fund)

The pandemic has pushed an unprecedented number of Americans outdoors. It’s also crushed state and local budgets that are struggling to match federal dollars used to support public lands and parks. 

It’s an administrative paradox that the 13 states with outdoor recreation offices are hoping to fix.

The diverse Confluence of States — which champions outdoor recreation as a driver for economic growth and conservation, as well as public health — is asking federal lawmakers to help unlock the gates guarding the $900 million-a-year Land and Water Conservation Fund. 

“We want all Colorado communities to be in a better position to leverage the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” said Nathan Fey, the director of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office and co-chair of the Confluence of States. “A lot of projects still require a state or local match and where do we come up with that when so many local budgets are so financially strapped after the pandemic?”

The outdoor recreation state directors are asking for relief from federal rules requiring the dollar-for-dollar match. When the economy is strong, that matching amplifies the impact of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. When communities are crawling out of a pandemic, federal support could be left untapped. 

The Confluence of States this week sent letters to the U.S. Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Colorado’s U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse — who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee’s subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands — and Interior Sec. Deb Haaland. The group says waivers, loans that can be converted to grants or a reduction of the one-to-one match could help support hundreds of projects and jobs across the country. 

“Our outdoor recreation spaces are a critical component of the nation’s infrastructure,” the letter reads. “Yet continued investment in these much-needed natural spaces is now in jeopardy.”

“The mechanics need to be improved,” Fey said. 

Fey and his fellow outdoor recreation office directors have been working with federal and state land managers to identify the bottlenecks that are hindering the flow of support from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which this year is set to be fully funded for only the second time since its inception in 1964.  

Read more outdoors stories from The Colorado Sun.

The Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office is compiling a list of shovel-ready projects across the state that could connect communities with trails and improve recreational infrastructure in rural communities, like a new river park on the Yampa River in Craig.

The projects are not just about supporting outdoor recreation and tourism economies, Fey said. Improvements to recreational access and trails can help Colorado’s rural communities appeal to businesses looking to relocate from urban settings.

The Confluence of States was born in 2018 with eight directors of state outdoor recreation offices — the recreation economy’s own G8 — forging a roadmap for other states to promote outdoor recreation as not just an amenity for residents but an economic engine that can help conserve and protect natural landscapes.

The outdoor recreation industry has surged ever since, becoming an economic, political and cultural force. In the last year, the outdoor economy has become a vital engine in the nation’s economic recovery, with the federal government’s latest tally showing outdoor recreation delivering $787.6 billion in economic impact and supporting 5.2 million jobs. 

While the now 13 members of the Confluence of States have worked to support a recreation economy in their own states — Colorado, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, North Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and Wyoming — the letter urging a relaxation of the match requirement for LWCF support is the first time the group has taken collective action. 

A road near Telluride. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“Having all these partisan states unified … it’s the first step for us to leverage the strength of the industry,” Fey said. 

Last year’s passage of the Great American Outdoors Act promised a fully-funded Land and Water Conservation Fund — supported at $900 million a year with royalties from oil drilling on public lands and waters — to help states acquire and conserve more public land. The legislation also directed $9.5 billion toward delayed maintenance at National Parks and other federally managed lands. 

But the money has been slow to arrive. Earlier this month, the Forest Service released its 2021 land acquisitions project list, with nearly $124 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund for 35 parcels. The list included Garfield County’s Sweetwater Lake, a 488-acre property adjacent to the Flat Tops Wilderness that has long been eyed for development. 

The Conservation Fund acquired the property last July for $7.1 million and plans to transfer the parcel to the White River National Forest. The project ranked No. 8 on the Forest Service’s priority list with a request for $8.5 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Late last week the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region announced $1.3 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to help support the purchases of “critical inholding areas, recreational access projects and core acquisition projects” that include Sweetwater Lake. 

The Sweetwater Lake project is on track “and moving along well,” said Justin Springs with The Conservation Fund. 

“It usually takes a minimum of two years from beginning a project, applying for LWCF monies, and then selling to the USA,” he said, describing the fund as “knee deep in the real estate process” and on track to transfer the property to the White River National Forest and get paid back. 

The Colorado Sun — Email: Twitter: @jasonblevins