President Donald Trump urged Congress to pass a law that permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund last week, after repeatedly requesting to cut its funding by 97% in annual budget proposals, including the one for 2021.
Under the new law, the LWCF would automatically receive an annual budget of $900 million. The guaranteed budget would help approve pending public park projects like Sweetwater Lake in Colorado, a popular camping site that is in danger of development.
Congress permanently authorized the LWCF last year, but the funding for conservation efforts came from oil and gas revenues, Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., told The Durango Herald over the phone last week.
“We fought for this, we went to the mat,” Gardner said of Trump’s support for the LWCF permanent funding bill. It is the first time since 1965 that the LWCF will receive full funding.
“He knows the incredible beauty of Colorado,” Gardner said of Trump, as well as the importance of the LWCF to the West’s economy. Gardner said he showed Trump a photo of a Colorado canyon last week in a meeting at the White House. The photo showed rims of the canyons stretching across Colorado.
Gardner told Trump the story of a family that used the LWCF to facilitate the switch of their private property land to national park land.
The legislation, introduced in the Senate on Monday, will also provide over $1 billion in funding to address maintenance backlogs on public lands managed by the National Park Service. The money will be used to restore roads and trails for recreation access.
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, an organization that works to protect North America’s heritage of hunting and fishing, called the LWCF the “most popular and effective conservation and access program in the nation,” and said in a news release it is grateful for Congress’ efforts to fully fund it.
“Time and time again, American citizens have loudly spoken up in support of funding for our public land management agencies and programs that conserve wildlife habitat and expand public access to great places to hunt, fish and enjoy the outdoors,” said Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Conservation Director John Gale.
Suzanne O’Neill with the Colorado Wildlife Federation said it is a “very much needed piece of legislation” that “Gardner has worked on for quite a long time.”
Environmental activists in Colorado, like Mark Pearson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, have said Trump’s proposed budget cuts to the LWCF demonstrate his priority is not land conservation.
Oil and gas revenue is paying for these conservation funds, but it is also causing environmental damage. Just last month, the Trump administration announced its final plans to allow cattle grazing, mining, oil drilling and other development across a section of southeast Utah previously protected as national monuments. And by rolling back a bedrock law that requires environmental impact studies, oil and gas leases on public lands could increase.
Tom Cors, director of lands for U.S. government relations at The Nature Conservancy, said there is no explicit restriction attached to the funding on how federal agencies manage LWCF lands; rather, that falls to agencies’ land-management planning processes.
But Cors emphasized in an email to the Herald that “the outsized public attention these purchase priorities get, and the unique and compelling conservation and recreation value they provide, typically makes a very powerful case for a high degree of protection.”
There is also a “very attentive set of watchdogs in the communities that care about these places to make sure they remain protected,” Cors wrote.
Cors said Gardner has been an “incredible force” in moving the bill forward, and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., has “worked hand in glove” with Gardner’s office on a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix this money permanently.”
Trump is returning to Colorado later this week for a fundraiser for Gardner, who is up for re-election in the Senate. Trump also appeared with Gardner at a rally in Colorado Springs in February.
Emily Hayes is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.