Roberts: Our state needs a fully-funded Land and Water Conservation Fund
I’ll begin this month’s column by stating something obvious: living in the mountains of Colorado is the best. The natural beauty of this place is something I know we all cherish and is something that makes me so proud to represent Eagle County.
As your state representative, protecting that natural beauty has been and will continue to be a priority. However, the conservation of our land, water and air is not just the responsibility of the state or local governments. The United States Congress has and must continue to play a crucial role. That is why this month, I would like to talk to you about a vital program that Eagle County residents need to be fully-funded by our federal leaders.
For over 50 years, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the most successful conservation program in U.S. history, has been instrumental in protecting irreplaceable lands and waters like ours here in Eagle County and enabling us to better access Colorado’s wonderful natural resources. Authorized for $900 million annually but fully funded only a few times since its inception, it has been responsible for funding the acquisition and enhancement of federal, state, and local public lands in almost every state and county in the nation, ensuring that all Americans have access to recreate and enjoy our lands and parks.
Yet Congress has been slow-moving to make the Land and Water Conservation Fund a permanent and fully-funded source for America’s well-being. After much wrangling, the fund was permanently reauthorized as part of the bipartisan John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act on March 12. Unfortunately, no assurance for future funding was provided.
Members in both the House and Senate have proposed bipartisan legislation to provide full and permanent funding, but President Trump previously proposed nearly zeroing-out money for the fund. What makes any congressional indecisiveness, first to permanently reauthorize and now to fully fund this vital program, particularly incredible is that the many benefits provided by the Land and Water Conservation Fund come at no cost to taxpayers. The money is taken only from a very small portion of the royalties paid by oil and gas companies drilling offshore.
Over five decades, the fund has invested approximately $278.6 million in Colorado, protecting some of the state’s most special places and helping to ensure recreational access for hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities. On the federal level, these places include Rocky Mountain National Park and the White River National Forest. Land and Water Conservation Fund state assistance grants have supported Colorado’s state and local parks including Eagle County’s Sylvan Lake State Park — all playing an important role in growing Colorado’s lucrative $28 billion annual outdoor recreation economy. Plus, protecting the historic Sweetwater Lake in Eagle County can likely only happen with adequate Land and Water Conservation Fund funding.
I thank Colorado’s Congressional representatives for their leadership in fighting for full funding this year, but the disheartening reality is that the U.S. Senate just approved a “half measures” amount for the program, proposing a $465 million level for the Land and Water Conservation Fund instead of the full $900 million intended by the original legislation.
It’s disappointing that Sen. Cory Gardner, who presumably has the power within his majority party to increase the amount our parks and public lands receive, would settle for this lesser amount. Especially disconcerting is that only a month ago, Gardner was leading the charge, urging Congressional leaders “to seize the opportunity for … full, permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund …” as they “work to enact legislation that will address Federal funding needs for fiscal year 2020 and beyond.”
Sen. Gardner, what happened to the passion and gusto for public lands you espoused when you sponsored the Land Water Conservation Fund Permanent Funding Act that mandated $900 million each year for outdoor recreation resources to strengthen the health and vitality of the citizens of the United States? I hope that both of our senators and our bipartisan delegation of U.S. House members can ensure the support we need.
We cannot take these places we cherish for granted. At the state Legislature, we can and have enacted policies to protect our state’s water and air. However, it should be the federal government’s role to support our efforts with resources like a fully-funded Land and Water Conservation Fund. We can work in partnership, but it is time for our elected leaders in Congress to hold up their end of the bargain.
Representative Dylan Roberts resides in Avon and represents Colorado House District 26, encompassing Eagle and Routt counties.