Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner: Wild spaces drive the Colorado economy (column) | SummitDaily.com

Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner: Wild spaces drive the Colorado economy (column)

Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner
Guest column

As thousands of outdoor enthusiasts attended Colorado's Outdoor Retailer Summer Market this week, it reminds us that the wild and scenic spaces surrounding us are not just an important part of our state's heritage and identity; they drive our economy. That is in no small part thanks to the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

For over half a century, LWCF has used a portion of federal offshore energy revenues — at no cost to taxpayers — to conserve our lands, water and open spaces, and to protect the outdoor recreation opportunities they offer.

But now this fund, which has maintained broad, bipartisan support since its inception, is in danger of expiring at the end of September.

LWCF has invested over $268 million in Colorado, leading to the protection of iconic landscapes like Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and lesser-known gems like the Ophir Valley in the San Juan Mountains.

Core to its model, LWCF also empowers communities — not Washington — to set conservation priorities. Through matching funds to state, local and tribal governments, LWCF investments have expanded public access to lakes, built trails and neighborhood parks, and created opportunities for kids to learn outside. To take one example, the Montbello Open Space in Denver's northeast corridor — funded by LWCF and set to open this fall — will offer outdoor recreation opportunities to underserved families that previously had none.

LWCF also lends support to critical habitats in danger of being lost. When a ranch in the San Luis Valley considered exporting its waters out of the region, LWCF helped fund the purchase of that ranch, ensuring the long-term protection of the valley's agriculture, wetlands and wildlife. Those acres became the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, a key piece of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve ecosystem and a major draw for outdoor and wildlife enthusiasts.

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Put simply, LWCF works. It is a time-tested and effective way to boost the economy and increase tourism in an industry responsible for $28 billion in consumer spending and 229,000 direct jobs in our state.

Yet Congress has never permanently authorized or fully funded it. In the Senate, we have cosponsored legislation that would permanently reauthorize the program and prevent the chipping away of its funding each year. We must harness the program's bipartisan support and pass this bill before LWCF expires.

LWCF is a critical tool for fulfilling our basic responsibility to give the next generation the same opportunities our parents and grandparents gave to us. It is time for Congress to stop the serial, short-term extensions of this program and make LWCF permanent with the full dedicated funding it deserves.

Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner are the U.S. Senators representing Colorado.