No piece of legislation was more front and center in Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner’s unsuccessful bid for reelection than the Great American Outdoors Act, a public lands bill sponsored by the Yuma Republican. The bill included full, permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which helps finance efforts by federal agencies and local governments across the country to acquire new lands for protection.
A widely aired TV ad in the final days of the 2020 campaign compared Gardner favorably to President John F. Kennedy, who in a 1962 visit to Pueblo first promised to fund the LWCF, which was established three years later but, as a discretionary program, has faced chronic shortfalls as lawmakers diverted revenues elsewhere. Gardner’s bill, passed by bipartisan majorities in Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump in August, provided mandatory funding for the LWCF at the authorized level of $900 million annually.
“It took 50 years to get it done — and it took Cory Gardner,” the ad’s narrator said.
But a little-noticed development on the eve of last week’s election has created new doubts about the implementation of Gardner’s bill and alarmed the public-lands advocates who championed its passage. Despite a requirement that the Trump administration submit a list of conservation projects to be funded by the LWCF within 90 days of the GAOA’s enactment, officials failed to provide the list by the Nov. 2 deadline, putting dozens of land acquisition deals and other protection efforts across the country in financial limbo.
The administration’s decision to flout a routine procedural deadline caught conservation groups and LWCF supporters by surprise. They say they’ve spent days asking for an explanation from officials at the Department of the Interior but are still in the dark about why the project list has gone missing.
“We are disappointed by the administration’s inexplicable inability to comply with the requirements in the Great American Outdoors Act, ignoring clear congressional direction and needlessly delaying time-sensitive projects,” said Bill Lee, senior vice president of policy, advocacy and government relations for the Trust for Public Land, in a statement. “For the countless communities, local partners, and willing-seller landowners depending on these investments, this is a really troubling failure.”
The missed deadline follows skepticism from some Democrats and environmental activists about the timing of the GAOA, which was widely viewed as an “election year gift” by Republican leadership to Gardner and fellow GOP Sen. Steve Daines, who successfully won reelection in Montana after campaigning on the bill.
Representatives for Gardner did not respond to requests for comment. The Trump administration’s failure to submit the LWCF project list, however, has drawn renewed accusations from Democrats that the passage of the GAOA was little more than a political ploy.
“Coloradans worked for years to secure full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet said in a statement provided to Newsline. “The fact that the Trump Administration is failing to follow through and meet LWCF deadlines, while not surprising, demonstrates a serious lack of commitment to conservation. Apparently they’ve already lost their interest in taking care of our public lands.”
‘A huge missed opportunity’
Because Congress has final say over federal spending, lawmakers could still allocate funding to specific LWCF projects in an Interior Department appropriations bill due to be finalized later this year. But conservationists say the administration’s unexpected failure to submit its own priority list could cause problems for pending projects whose financing has now been thrown into doubt — undermining a key advantage of the LWCF’s new, dedicated funding structure, which was meant to provide stability and certainty that would make ambitious, long-term conservation efforts more achievable.
The Interior Department didn’t respond to a request for comment. E&E News reported this week that Interior officials argued in a private call with conservation advocates that the law’s requirement that “the President shall … submit” the list to Congress means that Trump’s White House, not the Interior Department, is responsible for the submission, an assertion that Lee called “ridiculous.”
A preliminary list of proposals includes $8.5 million for the addition of Sweetwater Lake and its surrounding area to the White River National Forest in Colorado.
A preliminary list of proposals submitted by the Interior Department in May, prior to the GAOA’s passage, identified several projects in Colorado that are in line to receive LWCF funds. They include $8.5 million to help fund the addition of Sweetwater Lake and its surrounding area to the White River National Forest, and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to protect 1,100 acres of the San Luis Valley along the Colorado-New Mexico border, according to documents obtained by Newsline.
In addition to worrying that projects like these could now be derailed, conservation groups are also concerned about the administration’s implementation of the other major element of the GAOA: funding to help address a multibillion-dollar backlog of maintenance work identified by federal public-lands agencies, including in national parks.
While the Interior Department, which oversees the National Park Service, did submit a list of maintenance projects to receive funding as required by the Nov. 2 deadline, some conservation advocates and congressional Democrats criticized the list for its lack of specifics. The maintenance projects identified by the list were broken down into line items that featured only short, vague descriptions, such as “Colorado Buildings” and “Colorado Recreation Sites.”
Public-lands groups fear that the lack of detail and the missing LWCF list signal an unwillingness by top officials like Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a Colorado native and longtime oil lobbyist, to fully implement the GAOA. Following the news Saturday that Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden is projected to win the 2020 presidential election, the administration’s focus is likely to be elsewhere in the ensuing months, as it seeks to “lock in” oil and gas drilling and other industrial projects that Republicans have prioritized on federally-owned lands.
As an uneasy presidential transition period and lame-duck session of Congress begins, conservation groups are calling on lawmakers to allocate funds for the projects identified by the Interior Department’s preliminary list in May. Following the missed LWCF deadline, Rep. Deb Haaland, a Democrat from New Mexico and vice chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, urged her fellow members of Congress to “step in to ensure protection of the millions of dollars in funding that was set aside for environmental conservation and restoration.”
“The administration has already sent Congress a list of vetted, ready-to-go projects which show the incredible power of LWCF,” Lee said in a statement. “Each and every one of these projects not put forth by the administration today is a huge missed opportunity, adding to a vast backlog of unmet needs across the country.”