Colorado's U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner argues for the Great American Outdoors Act on the U.S. Senate floor on June 8.

Called the biggest federal lands bill in 50 years, the Great American Outdoors Act passed the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, just in time to add life to U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s reelection campaign.

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.

Gardner introduced the bill with Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, with the support of Colorado 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 originally 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 earlier this month, adding, “Isn’t it ironic that it will take public lands to bring a divided government and nation together?”

The New York Times reported this month 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.

“Since its creation in 1965, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has enjoyed some of the most bipartisan support we have ever seen for conservation legislation. And while so many things are changing, our support for this program has not,” Jessica Goad, Conservation Colorado’s deputy director, said in a statement.

“We’d like to thank the members of our federal delegation who worked for years to fully fund and permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund. This critical legislation will play a significant role in Colorado’s path to economic recovery while ensuring that we have more public lands, open space, and parks during this time of a pandemic when so many people are finding solace in the outdoors.”

She said she hoped the House would take up the bill as soon as possible.

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 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 onJune 15 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 the morning of June 16 that the great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, 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 June 16 debate 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,” former Gov. John Hickenlooper said, naming other bills Gardner didn’t support, as well as Trump’s rollbacks on environmental policies.

Former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, the other Democrat in the June 30 primary, said he doesn’t oppose everything Gardner is for.

“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.”

Contact the writer: 476-4809

Colorado Politics senior political reporter

Joey Bunch is the senior correspondent and deputy managing editor of Colorado Politics. His 32-year career includes the last 16 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and he is a two-time finalist.

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