Colorado's U.S. senators have vowed to keep fighting the fight on behalf of the Land and Water Conservation Fund after Congress allowed it to expire over the weekend.
The fund, which dates back five decades and is estimated to have provided nearly $270 million in benefits to Colorado, expired after Congress failed to act before a Sunday deadline to keep it alive.
"I think it's a crime that a program that's not taxpayer funded — it's funded by the (federal) royalties from offshore drilling — would be allowed to expire when it does so much good for small communities like ours," said Chris Muhr, who owns All Metals Welding & Fabrication Co. in Grand Junction and went to Washington, D.C., last month to help lobby to save the program.
The fund was created in 1964. It has provided protections over the years in Colorado to national parks, monuments and forests, and helped create local recreation amenities like the Blue Heron Trail along the Colorado River in Grand Junction.
A bipartisan congressional majority that in Colorado includes Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner and Reps. Scott Tipton, Jared Polis, Mike Coffman, Ed Perlmutter and Diana DeGette has supported a bill to permanently reauthorize the fund. But it hasn't been brought up for a vote by congressional leadership.
Amy Roberts, executive director of Outdoor Industry Association, said in a news release, "We are extremely disappointed that Congress is letting one of the most popular and bipartisan programs which supports our nation's public lands and outdoor recreation opportunities expire before the November elections. Our public lands are one of our nation's underlying unifiers, not to mention that they help to fuel the growing $887 billion outdoor recreation economy."
Gardner spokesman Casey Contres said the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee likely will be voting on conservation fun legislation this week.
"The Land and Water Conservation Fund helps preserve Colorado's public lands for future generations, and I'm going to continue to do everything I can to help ensure the program is permanently reauthorized," Gardner said in a statement released Monday.
"We can get this done, and I'm hopeful that a measure I support will move through the Energy and Natural Resources Committee later this week. This legislation would make LWCF funding permanent and get us closer to working with House and Senate leaders to find a solution that is good for Colorado's beautiful public lands and open spaces."
Bennet said in a statement the program's expiration "demonstrates just how broken Washington is."
"If we don't want to find ourselves in this exact position again down the road, we must permanently reauthorize LWCF. And if we want to grow our outdoor recreation economy and protect treasured landscapes, we must fully fund it.
"I'll keep working across the aisle to find a solution that gives this conservation tool the longevity and funding it deserves."
The law creating the program allows for about $900 million a year in funding, but Congress rarely appropriates that much for it.
Speaking on the Senate floor last week, Gardner spoke to the frustration of constituents he said probably are wondering why something everyone agrees on can take so long to get done.
"Washington seems to be the only place where the more people agree with it the longer it takes to happen," he said.
Support for the program isn't entirely universal, with some opponents arguing that federal land agencies have enough land and need to shift their focus to managing what they have.
Muhr believes using the fund to acquire isolated private inholdings in national forest makes sense. Doing so involves paying the landowner, who can spend the money for other land or other things, he said.
That money "would go back into circulation in the economy as opposed to just sitting there on 40 acres in the middle of the forest," he said.
Acquiring inholdings means taxpayers don't have to spend thousands or even millions of dollars for fighting fires to save cabins on inholdings, he said.
"It's disappointing to see (Congress) let it expire," he said of the program. "Hopefully they'll come to their senses and reauthorize it, hopefully reauthorize it permanently and fully fund it," he said.
Muhr, who said about 40 percent of his business involves outdoor-oriented products, represented the Colorado Outdoor Business Alliance on his recent lobbying trip.
Pointing to the local Highline Lake and Island Acres state parks as other beneficiaries of the funding over the years, Muhr said reauthorizing the program should be "a no-brainer."
But he said Congress is so busy fighting over things such as immigration, trade and the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, "this good program gets lost in the noise, unfortunately."
"They've got so many things that are going on in Washington I just don't think they have the bandwidth to concentrate on the good things," he said.