Gardner, Bennet to fight for conservation funding
Special to The Aspen Times
Colorado’s U.S. senators said this week they will both fight hard for full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund despite the Trump administration’s plans to gut the program that’s pumped more than $268 million into the state for parks, ball fields, trails and open space.
“Congress finally secures LWCF for future generations, and the administration turns around and tries to cut its funding. This is exactly why Coloradans are so frustrated with Washington,” Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet told the Vail Daily on Tuesday via a spokeswoman.
Bennet was referring to the signing last week of the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act (formerly the Natural Resources Management Act) by President Donald Trump — the day after the White House released a proposed 2020 budget with deep cuts to the LWCF and other public lands programs.
“The Land and Water Conservation Fund is the crown jewel of our conservation programs and I have long supported fully funding LWCF that comes at no cost to the taxpayers,” Republican Sen. Cory Gardner said via a spokesman.
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Established by Congress in 1965, the LWCF uses offshore drilling lease fees to develop parks, wildlife refuges and recreational facilities on federal, state and local lands. It also funds additions and upgrades to national parks, forests and other public lands, including projects in western Colorado. Trump’s budget would reportedly slash LWCF funding by 95 percent.
“I always fight for Colorado priorities in the budget and will continue to do so,” Gardner added. “Congress ultimately controls the power of the purse and I remain committed to putting Colorado interests first.”
Gardner’s office points to major Colorado priorities he successfully included in the most recent appropriations bill, including $435 million for the LWCF and $500 million for the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program, which provides federal payments to local governments to offset losses in property taxes due to non-taxable federal lands within their boundaries.
Bennet has introduced legislation to fully fund the LWCF, and Gardner has consistently vowed to continue fighting for full funding of the program.
State groups dependent on the funding would love to see an end to the annual budget battle for the program, which is now permanently reauthorized and collecting money from drilling operations.
“I struggle with that; I struggle with the whole (funding) concept, not just LWCF but the Forest Service and BLM budgets as a whole,” said Scott Jones, chairman of Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s State Recreational Trails Committee. “When Land and Water Conservation Fund money went away, the non-motorized side of the state trails program almost disappeared. It would have been less than a million bucks a year, and that was going to be a big problem.”
Congress allowed the LWCF to lapse in September after it was only reauthorized for three years in 2015.
Jones, who also represents several motorized recreational user groups, says one of his biggest frustrations is having the funds to work on trail projects but not enough federal staff to approve and facilitate construction.
“Our trails program, the motorized end of it, puts about $6 million a year on the ground for all kinds of projects — bridges, trail crews, you name it, we do it,” said Jones, who’s also president of the Colorado Snowmobile Association and vice president of the Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition.
“One of the biggest barriers we run into is we have the money, we have the trained people oftentimes housed in the Forest Service or BLM and we can’t get clarification on can we do this, can we not do this because there’s nobody there,” Jones said, referring to a lack of federal staffing or firefighting obligations.
“Last couple of years it’s been, ‘You know, John, the forester is fighting a fire for seven months out of the year,’” Jones said. “We need money to put people at desks.”
For hikers and backpackers, LWCF funding is key.
The ongoing construction of the Continental Divide Trail depends on LWCF money, particularly in areas where there’s no nearby federally owned public land. In those cases, proponents of the trail use LWCF funds to acquire private land for the trail.
In a statement, the Continental Divide Trail Coalition blasted the president’s “drastic cuts to LWCF,” which the coalition argued “undermined White House claims of support for the program.”
Teresa Martinez, executive director of the Golden-based CDTC, celebrated the renewal of the program but said it’s time to “get back to work to fight to ensure strong funding for LWCF.”
David O. Williams is a freelancer reporter based in Vail.
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