Gard­ner shep­herds mas­sive pub­lic lands bill toward vote

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Anna Staver

The U.S. Se­nate is set to do some­thing that it hardly ever does, po­lit­i­cal ob­servers say: Pass a bi­par­ti­san pack­age of more than 100 pub­lic lands and wa­ter bills that would in­crease con­ser­va­tion and ac­cess to the out­doors across the coun­try.

Se­nate Bill 47, which is ex­pected to get a vote early next week, has nine Colorado-re­lated bills in­side it, but the big­gest win for con­ser­va­tion groups would be the per­ma­nent reau­tho­riza­tion of the Land and Wa­ter Con­ser­va­tion Fund, which ex­pired at the end of Septem­ber.

Colorado’s se­na­tors and na­tional con­ser­va­tion groups say they ex­pect it to win ap­proval.

Repub­li­can Sen. Cory Gard­ner of Yuma, who serves on the Se­nate En­ergy and Nat­u­ral Re­sources Com­mit­tee, has been in­stru-

men­tal in build­ing this del­i­cate house of cards out of bills from states and com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try, ac­cord­ing to hunt­ing, bik­ing and con­ser­va­tion groups.

“This is a very sig­nif­i­cant pack­age of bills for pub­lic lands and the West,” Gard­ner told The Den­ver Post. “All these bills have been care­fully ne­go­ti­ated and vet­ted.”

En­vi­ron­men­tal groups con­sider the Land and Wa­ter Con­ser­va­tion Fund the crown jewel of pub­lic lands leg­is­la­tion. Cre­ated in 1964, the LWCF takes rev­enues from off­shore oil and gas devel­op­ment and de­posits it into a fund to im­prove out­door re­cre­ation.

The money has built ev­ery­thing from play­grounds to fish­ing sites and bought pub­lic ease­ments from pri­vate landown­ers. In Colorado, the fund has in­vested nearly $270 mil­lion in projects like the Con­ti­nen­tal Di­vide Trail and Golden Gate Canyon State Park.

The prob­lem with the LWCF is that Congress au­tho­rized it for 50 years. The fund got a three-year ex­ten­sion when it was first set to end in 2015, but then law­mak­ers couldn’t agree on an­other one when the fund ex­pired in Septem­ber. The fund isn’t in dan­ger of run­ning out of money any­time soon, but ev­ery day it can’t col­lect those de­posits, it loses out on about $2.4 mil­lion for pub­lic lands projects, ac­cord­ing to the con­ser­va­tion fund.

Gard­ner said that’s partly why he yelled at his Repub­li­can col­league, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, when Lee ob­jected and ef­fec­tively blocked a nearly iden­ti­cal pack­age of pub­lic lands bills from pass­ing by unani- mous con­sent in De­cem­ber.

“Let me talk about this be­cause I am pretty dog­gone up­set,” Gard­ner said dur­ing a floor speech as he pounded the podium. “The peo­ple of Colorado tonight, who are wor­ried about whether they can pro­tect them­selves from fire, lost the Wild­fire Tech­nol­ogy Act in this bill.”

This time, the bill is mov­ing through nor­mal chan­nels and a sin­gle sen­a­tor can’t block its pas­sage with an ob­jec­tion.

That wild­fire bill Gard­ner railed about in De­cem­ber is in the new pack­age, along with ones that would add pri­vate land to the Floris­sant Fos­sil Beds Na­tional Mon­u­ment, al­low the town of Min­turn ac­cess through a wilder­ness area to fi­nally fix its wa­ter sys­tem and study whether Amache, a Ja­pa­nese in­tern­ment camp site in Granada, should be­come part of the na­tional park sys­tem.

“We just don’t have the man­power to keep it up the way we should,” said John Hop­per, who runs the Amache site with do­na­tions and an ever-chang­ing group of lo­cal high school stu­dents. “You know if it’s a na­tional park, it’s go­ing to be taken care of for years to come.”

Hop­per said he’s grate­ful for the sup­port from Gard­ner and Colorado’s Demo­cratic Sen. Michael Bennet in mov­ing Amache for­ward for na­tional park des­ig­na­tion.

“It’s rare that a bi­par­ti­san lands pack­age moves in Congress, so this bill is a sig­nif­i­cant ac­com­plish­ment with a num­ber of pro­vi­sions im­por­tant to com­mu­ni­ties in our state,” Bennet said.

But Bennet isn’t com­pletely happy with how the bill came to­gether.

The Se­nate’s pub­lic lands pack­age cre­ates about 1.3 mil­lion new acres of wilder­ness area, but not a sin­gle one of those acres would be in Colorado.

Bennet’s of­fice tried to get some Colorado wilder­ness bills, such as the San Juan Moun­tains Wilder­ness Act, into the pack­age, but com­mit­tee mem­bers — in­clud­ing Gard­ner — ul­ti­mately de­cided against it.

“While other Western states like Utah and Mon­tana will cel­e­brate thou­sands of acres of new land pro­tec­tions in the bill, we’re dis­ap­pointed new pro­tec­tions for Colorado are not in­cluded,” Bennet said.

He has filed an amend­ment, called the CORE Act (Colorado Out­door Re­cre­ation & Econ­omy Act), to the pack­age of pub­lic lands bills.

It’s a move that makes Gard­ner and even con­ser­va­tion groups like the Na­tional Wildlife Foun­da­tion ner­vous.

Bills such as SB 47 that get as­sem­bled over time with dozens of smaller bills that would likely never get votes on their own are frag­ile things.

“Every­body wants their piece of the ac­tion,” Gard­ner said. “It be­comes this es­ca­lat­ing tit for tat.”

And if law­mak­ers aren’t care­ful, the whole house of cards will col­lapse.

The NWF and other con­ser­va­tion groups are urg­ing mem­bers of Congress to pass “a clean bill,” which means ig­nor­ing amend­ments as they come up next week even if they have merit. “We’re ex­cited about this,” Gard­ner said. “The whole pack­age is good for pub­lic lands. We’re not giv­ing up un­til we get this done.”

He­len H. Richard­son, Den­ver Post file

Stu­dents from Granada High School stand on what is left of a foun­da­tion of an old build­ing at the site of the Amache Ja­pa­nese-Amer­i­can Re­lo­ca­tion Cen­ter on Nov. 16, 2016, near Granada.

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