Public lands can lead COVID-19 recovery

The great outdoors has always been entwined with our identity and our way of life in Colorado. So when we look at ensuring our state can withstand and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, enhancing protections for our public lands and the communities surrounding them must be part of our approach.

This week the president signed my bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act, which I introduced with U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va). Under normal times, it would stand on its own as a landmark win for conservation — it fully and permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and addresses the growing backlog of maintenance projects on our federal public lands. But in times of crisis caused by COVID-19, it will also provide an economic infusion for the communities in Colorado that have been hit hardest by this pandemic.

Our entire state is experiencing hardship right now. We have lost nearly 2,000 of our residents to COVID-19. Our rural mountain towns have been hit particularly hard, not just health-wise as early hotspots for the virus, but financially as well. The pandemic caused ski seasons to end early, hotels to empty, and restaurants to close. Millions of dollars in spending — and tax revenues for our school and local governments — vanished overnight.

Which is why the Great American Outdoors Act has the potential to provide great economic and job opportunities. The LWCF has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into protecting and providing access to public lands in Colorado over the years for Coloradans to hunt, fish, camp, and enjoy recreation activities on the lands we own.

The Great American Outdoors Act will also address the growing maintenance backlog on federally managed lands — which has now ballooned to approximately $20 billion on federal lands nationwide. In Colorado alone, the backlog of maintenance projects has reached over $500 million on land managed by the federal government. These projects include trails, roads, bridges, buildings, and other repairs that are ready to begin — we just need to properly fund them. Doing so will create jobs, investments, and economic activity in the areas of Colorado that have been decimated by the pandemic-caused shutdown of travel.

I’ve traveled all over the great state of Colorado visiting with land management officials and professionals, stakeholders, and constituents to discuss what the Great American Outdoors Act will really mean on the ground for Colorado and Colorado’s public lands. Park officials have shown me the improvements they plan to make when they have the funding. Bureau of Land Management employees have shown me how the LWCF will be used to increase access for Coloradans to get to and enjoy the lands that they own. In Pueblo, we saw one of the many LWCF successes in Colorado at the Runyon Sports Complex, which has benefitted from roughly $100,000 from the LWCF. Forty percent of LWCF dollars go back to our state and local communities and when we fully fund the LWCF, as the Great American Outdoors Act does, it will lead to new parks and recreation opportunities all across Colorado and our country.

For years I’ve fought hard to ensure our public lands receive the funding they deserve. But no one is ready to climb a Fourteener overnight, and it takes time to make the rest of Washington appreciate our public lands in the same way a Coloradan does. Last year we made progress to ensure the LWCF even exists every year, after I shepherded the John D. Dingell, Jr., Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act through the Senate. The Great American Outdoors Act caps off years of hard, bipartisan work to rightfully take care of Colorado’s natural treasures.

The Great American Outdoors Act will undoubtedly ensure that our public lands will be passed on to our children better than they were given to us. It will provide more opportunities for Coloradans to experience and explore the lands they own while supporting our treasured places, our economy, and our Colorado way of life. This legislation truly is the most significant conservation bill for Colorado in generations and has often been referred to as the “holy grail” of conservation legislation.

Not only will the Great American Outdoors Act help our state and hardest-hit areas recover from COVID-19 through job creation and economic stimulus, but it will protect the public lands that define Colorado for generations.


U.S. Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO)

Grand Junction Daily Sentinel