Editor’s note: A version of this story first appeared in the Vail Daily.
In an election year, apparently no good deed goes unpunished. While Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner on Tuesday was celebrating getting the support of President Donald Trump for his bill to fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), his Democratic opponents were busy attacking the senator’s overall environmental record.
Gardner and Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines led a bipartisan press conference to announce their Senate bill combining SB1081, the Land and Water Conservation Fund Permanent Funding Act, and SB500, the Restore Our Parks Act, and to permanently dedicate full annual funding of the LWCF at $900 million a year to addressing a $12 billion backlog of maintenance projects at National Parks around the country.
More importantly, they got Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to agree to bring the bill to the Senate floor in the next couple of weeks if the duo could get Trump to agree to sign it if it passes.
Established by Congress in 1965, the LWCF uses fees on offshore oil and gas drilling to fund parks, wildlife refuges and recreational facilities on federal, state and local lands. It also funds maintenance, upgrades and additions to national parks, forests and other public lands, including projects in Eagle County. It’s pumped more than $268 million into Colorado over the years.
After the Republican-controlled Congress allowed the LWCF to lapse in 2018, Gardner and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, pushed hard to renew the fund and get $495 million of its annual $900 million restored in 2019.
“The LWCF supports projects in Colorado and all across our country at no cost to the taxpayer, and fighting every year to figure out how much money the program will receive doesn’t provide the long-term planning certainty that our outdoor and conservation community deserves,” Gardner said in a press release. “I thank the President for his support, and I encourage all my colleagues in Congress to support full and permanent funding of the LWCF …”
Trump tweeted his support on Tuesday: “I commend the hard work of Senator @SteveDaines and @SenCoryGardner in protecting funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund for years to come. The citizens of Montana and Colorado thank you both!”
U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, the Democratic congressman for the eastern part of Eagle County, including Vail, sent out a release on Wednesday questioning the president’s commitment to LWCF funding given he released a budget proposal just last month slashing it by 97%.
At a House Natural Resources Committee oversight hearing on the Trump’s Department of Interior budget proposal, Neguse on Wednesday called Trump’s statements and actions contradictory and asked Department of Interior Assistant Secretary Susan Combs for clarification.
“Does the Department of the Interior intend to submit an addendum to the budget that you’ve submitted to Congress to fully fund LWCF?” Neguse asked. “Or, rather, I should say, when do you anticipate sending the addendum to fully fund LWCF? As the President of the United States has announced that that is his intent.”
Trump’s 2019 budget proposal also slashed LWCF funding, but Congress ultimately allocated $495 million — the highest amount since 2003.
“The fact is President Trump signed legislation last year to create near-record funding for the Land and Water Conversation Fund,” Gardner spokeswoman Annalyse Keller said in an email on Wednesday.
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat seeking the nomination to take on Gardner in the November election, sent out this tweet on Tuesday: “Sen. Gardner voted to put a coal lobbyist [Andrew Wheeler] in charge of the EPA. He’s refused to support the #COREact which would protect 400,000 acres of CO public lands And he [in past year] voted to cut #LWCF funding by 90 percent. Only Trump would praise a record like this.”
Gardner has said he will not block the CORE, or Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act, but he also has not supported it in the Senate after Neguse got it passed in the House. The bill would protect public lands in Eagle and Summit counties, including around Camp Hale.
“Senator Gardner continues to have conversations with the Colorado congressional delegation, local officials, and constituents regarding the CORE Act,” Keller said.
The first press question at a Tuesday press conference in Washington on Gardner’s LWCF funding bill was whether it was an election-year gambit by the president for a pair of vulnerable Republican senators. Here’s a video of the press conference on Facebook.
“The last several years have been some of the highest levels of funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, signed by the president, so I’m not going to try to play politics or point partisan fingers,” Gardner said. “I’m going to talk about the bipartisan success that this Congress has.”
Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, said his party needs to jump on this opportunity because “it will never happen in our lifetimes again if we don’t take this. I really don’t care – the politics. This needs to be done for my children and grandchildren … politics be damned. Let’s just get it done.”
Bennet thanked Gardner for his hard work convincing McConnell and the president.
“I look forward to rolling up our sleeves and making sure we take nothing for granted because you can take nothing for granted in Washington these days, and let’s make sure we get this across the finish line,” Bennet said.
Conservation groups also praised Gardner’s efforts.
“We thank Sens. Gardner and Daines, President Trump, and this bipartisan group a lawmakers for making this legislation a priority,” Steve Moyer, vice president of government affairs for Trout Unlimited, said in a press release. “Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have long sought to fulfill the LWCF promise for the American people and provide much needed funding to take care of our public lands.”