Congress fails to renew Land and Water Conservation Fund, hurting Summit and other Colorado resort communities
An era of bitter partisanship has paralyzed America’s Congress into hopeless inaction. The year’s third partial government shutdown, which goes into full effect Wednesday, is just the latest sign that the country’s most important institution has become dangerously ineffective. Even before the latest shutdown, the 115th U.S. Congress was unable to compromise on even the most agreeable legislative acts, taking a toll on rural mountain resort communities like Summit County.
Take, for example, the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The bipartisan program, enacted during the Johnson administration in 1964, was rooted in President Teddy Roosevelt’s vision for protecting America’s great outdoors and encouraged in its planting by presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. The $900 million program, funded by royalties from offshore oil and gas leases and zero taxpayer dollars, has for decades funded projects big and small to protect America’s land and water and provide outdoor recreational opportunities in nearly every county in America.
According to grant data compiled by Watchdog nonprofit InvestigateWest, Colorado has received at least $60 million for conservation and recreation projects across the state from 1966 to 2011, the last year data was available. Summit County is the beneficiary of nearly $900,000 in local grants, which have helped fund key county projects, including the Swan Mountain recreation path and other major improvements and extensions to the county recpath system, Walter Byron Memorial Park in Frisco, Rainbow Park in Silverthorne, Dillon Park and Breckenridge Community Park.
However, the fund expired in September after a three-year extension, and Congress has been unable to make much progress toward a renewal. Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner have supported renewing the fund, but have been unable to move the needle on renewal.
“Coloradans deserve a Congress responsive to their priorities, but Washington has failed to pass significant public lands legislation for years,” Bennet said in a press release condemning Congress’ failure to renew the program. “We must find a way to pass a lands package that includes LWCF and a new wilderness and recreation designations in Colorado, including the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act. Congress’ failure to act on the Land and Water Conservation fund this year is unacceptable, and shows just how broken this place is.”
Losing the program has political consequences. Polling firm Change Research found that 87 percent of Coloradans support Congress renewing the fund. The same poll found that Colorado’s most important voting bloc — independents — are more likely to oppose Sen. Gardner’s 2020 re-election bid by a five-to-one margin if he is unable to steer his fellow Senate Republicans toward passing the fund.
Aside from the fund, there are other pieces of legislation with effects on Summit County that have also been stalled due to congressional gridlock. Tom Koehler, a local conservationist and environmental legislation analyst, noted two bills in particular.
One is House Resolution 2936, “The Resilient Forests Act 2017,” which would help with wildfire mitigation by streamlining the environmental review process under the National Environmental Policy Act. Koehler said that the law would provide a categorical exclusion for thinning up to 30,000 acres of forestland, as well as require opponents to thinning to provide an alternative prescription. This is especially important for areas like the Peak 7 neighborhood, which has opposed thinning in the past, and now has serious wildfire concerns because of overgrowth and dead trees.
The other is Senate Bill 2501, the Ski Fee Retention bill, which has been sponsored by Gardner, co-sponsored by Bennet and endorsed by the National Ski Areas Association. The bill would divert roughly half of the $20 million sent to Washington, D.C., by ski resorts to the U.S. Forest Service. However, Koehler notes that there are significant downsides to the bill, as money would be earmarked exclusively for ski resort improvements, and could be used as an excuse by Congress to not adequately fund the forest service as a whole. Koehler gives the bill a low chance of passing.
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