U.S. Senate passes Cory Gardner's Great Outdoors Act

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner was enjoying the fruits from years of labor Wednesday as the Senate passed his Great American Outdoors Act, characterized as the most significant public lands bill in generations.

"This is a significant victory for Colorado," Gardner told Colorado Politics Wednesday afternoon, asked if this was the biggest win of his first term in Washington. "We've passed legislation like the mandatory sanctions on North Korea to try to take a step toward denuclearizing this. I created the first ever strategy toward Asia and China, the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, but this is significant landmark legislation."

Gardner's legislation fully funds the once endangered Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million and takes on the roughly $20 billion maintenance backlog on federal public lands. It was President Trump, however, who sought to empty out the LWCF, a fund filled with lease money paid by the oil and gas industry.

The key was tying those two problems together and bringing political partisans and disparate interests to the negotiating table, Gardner said. That broke loose a legislative logjam in place for a decade.

"I was able to convince (Senate Majority Leader Mitch) McConnell to put it on the floor and we went over to the president and was able to convince him to move these two together as the Great American Outdoors Act," Gardner said. "I've been working on this for a very long time as the Land and Water Conservation Fund starting with Great San Dunes National Park back in 2002 and one of the first votes I took in the Senate in 2015 to the final passage today." 

The Republican from the Eastern Plains also has lined up support in the Democratic-controlled House, so it's expected to pass there, as well.

The big win lands at a critical juncture in his reelection campaign, with former Gov. John Hickenlooper and former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff in a locked in a battle for the June 30 primary to take him on.

He sounded amused to have their support Wednesday.

"The problem with me is I have two R's at the end of my name, Gardner and Republican," he said. 

"This is the biggest public lands bill in our nation's history," he said. "They've got rhetoric. We've got results."

Gardner, obviously, disagreed with Trump's move to empty out the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is filled with money from oil and gas leases to support national parks.

Though the LWCF lacked permanent funding, Trump signed appropriation bills for the recipients of LWCF at their highest levels in years, Gardner said Wednesday.

"That's why we fought for this," he said of needed funds for parks and other public lands. "There won't be a question next year of how much funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund will get, because of this legislation, once signed into law, we'll know."

He wouldn't comment directly on some of Trump's environmental rollbacks, however.

"I agree we should have moved the headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management out to Colorado," the skilled politician deflected to another of his accomplishments. "I agree that we can find opportunities to protect our lands and to balance it with our needs. Obviously, I fought for more money than his budgets presented (for conservation), so I didn't agree with his budget proposal, which is why we fought to change it, and I'll continue to.

"I don't think we should have a Green New Deal."

Gardner said he couldn't support putting thousands of Coloradans out of work by shutting down the state's vital oil and gas industry. Hickenlooper's position is much the same, preferring an evolution instead of the Green New Deal. Romanoff backs the progressive environmental plan, calling for a renewable resources civilian conservation corps to build up the emerging source of energy.

Among those applauding the passage in the Republican-held Senate was Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a congressman from Boulder being elected the state's chief executive in 2018.

“As our economy bounces back, access to our great outdoor areas, which allow for strong social distancing, are critical to our recovery and safety," Polis said in a statement. "I thank our senators for their bipartisan effort and urge my former colleagues in the House to pass this important legislation.”

Gardner introduced the Great American Outdoors Act with Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, with the support of Colorado's Sen. Michael Bennet.

Bennet has sought full funding for the LWCF every year he's been in Congress, among other conservation efforts.

“Public lands are part of our legacy, our culture, and our history in Colorado," Bennet said in a statement. "After a decade of leading this effort, I’m thrilled the Senate has finally passed funding for LWCF.

“This is the culmination of years of hard work by Coloradans – from county commissioners and local elected leaders to conservation groups, hunters and anglers, and outdoor recreation businesses. They have put in the work, year after year, calling for Congress to fully fund LWCF, invest in our public lands, and support our state’s economy. Their dedication and advocacy are why we were able to pass this bill today.”

Trump has reportedly offered his support for the bill, as Republicans again seek political credit to avert a situation the president created, including withdrawing tariffs he proposed and resolving border conflicts his orders generated, leading some pundits to characterize the president as simultaneously the arsonist and firefighter.

The breakthrough on conservation lands at a critical time in the Western campaigns of Gardner and Sen. Steve Daines in Montana, who is facing Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.

Montana has around 30 million acres of public lands, and Colorado has about 22 million acres.

“We are on the cusp of passing the most historic conservation legislation in 50 years,” Daines said in Washington last week adding, “Isn’t it ironic that it will take public lands to bring a divided government and nation together?" 

The New York Times last week reported last week on how Gardner convinced Trump that reversing course on public lands "hoping to capitalize on the president’s yearning for flashy achievements ..." That article also reported on how the move is a Republican attempt to save political careers, and quite possibly the GOP majority in the upper chamber.

Republicans are in tight races across the country, and Colorado is viewed as one of the most likely and most critical gains for the left, as four years ago Hillary Clinton easily dispatched Trump, who polls suggest has gotten more unpopular and pulled Gardner down with him.

The Great Americans Outdoors Act is supported by scores of environmental organizations, including Conservation Colorado, the state's largest environmental organization.

Democrats like the bill, but not the sponsor, engaging in at least a weeklong campaign to make sure members of their party got at least as much, if not more credit for the legislation.

The left has gone after Gardner for more than a year to tie him to policies passed by President Trump and fellow Republicans to undermine environmental regulations and other measures adopted by the president, including pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord in 2017 and waiving most major environmental permitting reviews.

The state Democratic Party sent reporters a list of what it considered lowlights on Monday in advance of Gardner's big legislative win on Wednesday, including the senator's lifetime score of 11% from the League of Conservation Voters, a group that is very politically active and frequently critical of Republicans. The state party in the missive noted Gardner has not supported the efforts of Democrats, including those in the Colorado delegation.

Colorado Democrats also accused the GOP of using the environment as a political football.

Gardner's office noted Tuesday morning that the great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican and a founder of the national park system, was endorsing the Great Americans Outdoors Act.

Gardner is co-chair and a founder of the Senate Roosevelt Conservation Caucus.

“Now, more than ever, we are relying on our public lands to get outdoors, to connect with the world, to support jobs, and to strengthen our communities. In this time of uncertainty, we have been given a once in a lifetime opportunity to protect our public lands and waters for all generations to come,” Theodore Roosevelt IV said in his statement. “Passing the Great American Outdoors Act would be taking a page from President Theodore Roosevelt’s book: protecting the quintessence of who we are as Americans in the stewardship of our natural places, great and small. President Roosevelt set conservation as a priority — a duty — for a great and far-sighted nation in recognition that our natural bounty is the foundation for all else. Without it, we cannot prosper.”

The bill was fodder for the debate Tuesday night between the two Democrats hoping to unseat Gardner, asked if it was a success for Gardner.

"These are important steps forward, but that doesn't relieve him of the responsibility to stand up for Colorado," Hickenlooper said, naming other bills Gardner didn't support, as well as Trump's rollbacks on environmental policies. 

Romanoff said he doesn't oppose everything Gardner supports.

"So, yeah, I'm glad he helped pass this law," Romanoff said, adding that he agrees with Gardner's work to expand intrastate banking for the marijuana industry. "But none of that makes up for the record he's acquired."


By: Joey Bunch

Colorado Politics