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Molly Riddle, 13, at right, and her brothers Grant, 14, and Nathan, 9, work to make a snowman on Friday at the LaVern M. Johnson Park in Lyons.  (Photo by Jeremy Papasso/Staff Photographer)
Molly Riddle, 13, at right, and her brothers Grant, 14, and Nathan, 9, work to make a snowman on Friday at the LaVern M. Johnson Park in Lyons. (Photo by Jeremy Papasso/Staff Photographer)

Since Congress established the Land and Water Conservation Fund in 1964, it has contributed more than $270 million to conservation projects in Colorado, $4 million of which went directly to help Boulder County communities complete 60 parks and open space acquisitions.

Many — including Boulder Reservoir, the St. Vrain Greenway, Walker Ranch and Eldorado Canyon State Park — have become ingrained in the very identity of the region.

Nevertheless, despite the fund’s historical successes and broad bipartisan support, President Trump has proposed Congress essentially eliminate the “the crown jewel of conservation programs,” as U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., referred to it when he introduced the Land and Water Conservation Fund Permanent Funding Act, in April 2019, by slashing its budget by 97% as compared to last year’s allocation of $485 million.

The proposed budget cut comes after Congress voted to permanently authorize the program in 2019. While the program will now exist in perpetuity, its funding, which is largely generated  by offshore oil and gas revenue, is never guaranteed.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson created the fund, he said, “the land and water conservation bill assures our growing population that we will begin, as of this day, to acquire on a pay-as-you-go basis the outdoor recreation lands that tomorrow’s Americans will require.”

However, since Congress established the program’s funding level at $900 million in 1978, it has received the full allotment only  twice, in 1998 and 2000. Outside of those years, more than $18 billion was diverted from the Land and Water Conservation Fund into general revenues for other, unintended purposes, helping lead to a $30 billion backlog of unmet conservation needs at the federal level and $27 billion at the state level, according to the National Park Service.

As funds have diminished over the years, so too have the number of projects, especially since the funding level has not been adjusted for inflation since it was enacted in 1978. Lyons was even recently denied funds for a new trail system, said Dave Cosgrove, the director of Public Works and Parks.

While Trump’s proposed budget seeks to reallocate much of the money previously designated for the Land and Water Conservation Fund to pay for the $16 billion deferred maintenance backlog at parks across the country, many congressional representatives said it was akin to robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Those who support the budget cut assert that there are already plenty of protected lands and that the money would be better spent maintaining the open spaces and public parks already in place before purchasing new ones.

“I’ve been skeptical of the need to acquire more, and I think many of my colleagues share that skepticism,” Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told The Hill. “I continue to hold the view that Congress should determine the appropriate level of funding for LWCF and how it should be allocated. We should look at it on a yearly basis, determine its funding levels relative to all of our other needs and priorities.”

Others say the need to protect additional land is more important than ever when considering the climate crisis and that a lack of consistent funding hinders communities’ ability to plan for new acquisitions, parks or trails.

“Colorado projects rely on LWCF funding, and fighting year after year about how much money to provide the program does not provide the long-term planning certainty our outdoor and conservation communities deserve,” Gardner wrote in a statement when he introduced the Land and Water Conservation Fund Permanent Funding Act, in April 2019. “This is a commonsense, bipartisan program that comes at no cost to the taxpayer.”

Locally, Eric Lane, the director of Boulder County Parks and Open Space, said that essentially eliminating the Land and Water Conservation Fund would clearly hinder the entire county’s ability to complete conservation and recreation projects.

“It can be the difference between a project being possible and impossible,” he said. “Utilizing the (Boulder County) sales tax and general fund as non-federal or non-state matching funds, we get a lot of extra mileage through the program that facilitates both acquisition and trail development. So we even as well funded as (Boulder County Parks and Open Space) is, we would definitely see a slowdown.”

For instance, Lane noted that the $7.1 million acquisition of conservation easements on 5.1 square miles in the South Boulder Creek watershed at Tolland Ranch would not have been possible without a $4.9 million contribution from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. In the process, 80 development rights were eliminated at the interface of Gilpin and Boulder Counties and a new trail system is soon to be under construction that will connect the West Magnolia trail and the Jenny Creek Trail on US Forest Service lands.

This ability to leverage federal funds is especially important for smaller municipalities with fewer resources to devote to parks and open space.

“For those with smaller budgets, this funding stream could be the only significant source of funding that they have to match their very limited municipal resources,” Lane said. “So if this budget cut is approved, I think we’ll see trails and parks in very close proximity to residents at the municipal level be fewer and further between.”

For example, Longmont was awarded $200,000 in 2006 to develop the St. Vrain Greenway. Lyons was awarded roughly $100,000 in the late ’80s and early ’90s to create Bohn Park and Meadow Park, now known as LaVern Johnson Park. In 1988 Nederland was awarded $42,500 to build the Nederland Recreation Center and Lafayette was provided 53,500 in 1983 for Waneka Lake Park. The list covers major parks and trails throughout the region.

“The city has used $616,000 from The Land and Water Conservation Fund to help create things that are significant to our community, like Carr park, Golden Ponds and the St. Vrain Greenway, but any time we don’t have the ability to leverage funds it slows down work,” said David Bell, Longmont’s director of Public Works and Natural Resources. “We’re looking to hire a grant coordinator here in the near future to do a much more rigorous job of chasing down grants in the future, but any time you lose a funding source it limits you.”

Since the Land and Water Conservation Fund was enacted, the state and local assistance grants program has leveraged $4 billion in federal grants with more than $8 billion in matching funds to support more than 42,000 parks, trail and recreation projects in every county in America.

But while conserving key properties in a community helps improve the quality of life, mitigate climate change, provide buffers for extreme weather events, and maintain water quality, it also generates economic benefits.

“Investments in (Land and Water Conservation Fund) not only support land conservation, they are a sound investment in our economy,” U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Boulder, and more than 60 of his colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives, not including U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, wrote in the letter to House appropriators. “The (Land and Water Conservation Fund) has created thousands of jobs in the outdoor recreation economy and every $1 spent by (the Land and Water Conservation Fund) generates $4 in economic value to both rural communities and cities.”

The Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition estimates that it directly impacts 6.1 million American jobs, $646 billion in outdoor recreation spending each year, $39.9 billion in federal tax revenue and $39.7 billion in state and local tax revenue.

“This proposal is outrageous and absurd, especially as Democrats and Republicans alike on Capitol Hill are working hard to fund LWCF fully and permanently, and as conservation and recreation demand across America continues to skyrocket,” Jonathan Asher, director of government relations at The Wilderness Society and a spokesman for the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition, wrote in a statement.

“Eliminating funding for (the Land and Water Conservation Fund) would have a devastating impact on not only our national forests, parks, and other national treasures, but would also harm the economy and communities across the nation.”