Conserving Colorado’s Natural Treasures — Federal Conservation Funding and its Critical Role
The future of Colorado's energy landscape is, unfortunately, a complicated political game. But, federal conservation funding is here to save the day.
Spring in Colorado means it’s time to start trading in your ski boots for hiking boots. As snowpack starts to melt away and access to the backcountry opens up, we can begin again our treks to explore the incredible sites across our state’s public lands. It’s also an opportunity to reflect on threats to federal conservation funding under the current political environment.
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We are fortunate because Colorado is home to four national parks, 11 national forests, 8.3 million acres of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and several national monuments and historic sites. Each area is a beautiful and historic destination that features our state’s natural beauty and culture (and even prehistoric artifacts).
Unfortunately, these federal public lands have been woefully underfunded, and as a result, recreational sites across Colorado are stressed. Federal officials have been unable to keep up with deterioration that comes from the growing popularity of public lands and issues associated with overcrowding. For example, the National Park Service (NPS) reports that, in Colorado alone, the cost of addressing the growing backlog of maintenance exceeds $400 million. This includes $124 million in maintenance needed at Mesa Verde National Park and $100 million needed at Rocky Mountain National Park. Nationwide, the figure is $22.3 billion, up from $13 billion in 2020.
There’s good news, however. In 2020, Congress passed one of the most bipartisan bills in recent years, the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA). The law provides $2.8 billion annually in federal conservation funding to address the growing needs of our nation’s most treasured landscapes. It’s the largest federal conservation funding program created in the past 50 years.
The law features two sources of conservation funding. The first is a new program called the National Park and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund. It provides up to $1.9 billion annually in conservation. The vast majority of revenue, 91%, comes from federal onshore oil and natural gas royalties from leases on non-park, non-wilderness public lands. In Colorado, oil and natural gas projects outside of places like Fort Morgan and Parachute contribute to that vital funding stream.
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In addition, GAOA also permanently funds $900 million annually for the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which was first created in 1964 but was never fully funded. The money for LWCF projects comes exclusively from offshore oil and natural gas production.
Today, we’re seeing the benefits of this law as new funding is helping address the maintenance needs of our public lands. Over the past two years, Colorado has received $67 million under the program. Projects that have received funding Colorado include campground and waterline maintenance at Rocky Mountain and Mesa Verde National Parks, wetlands infrastructure in the San Luis Valley, and a wildfire water project near Grand Junction.
Regrettably, these historic conservation gains are being threatened by today’s political environment and a concerted effort to halt federal oil and natural gas production that funds GAOA’s programs.
Under President Biden and as a consequence of his executive authority, BLM has halted new federal oil and natural gas leasing. Over the past two years, only one series of the quarterly lease sales have been held. Under the law, the agency should have held nine lease sales in each state where lands were nominated for lease, including in Colorado.
The lack of lease sales threatens future federal conservation funding because in the coming years, as the existing inventory of oil and natural gas leases run out, production will slow and eventually be eliminated. Royalties will then decline, creating an enormous gap in available funds to maintain our national parks and other public lands. And revenues generated from wind and solar production won’t be there to backfill the programs because renewable projects don’t pay federal royalties like oil and natural gas.
As an oil and natural gas trade association, our team at Western Energy Alliance and the 200 businesses we represent were proud to support and help pass GAOA. The law builds on the legacy of balancing energy extraction on working landscapes with preserving our nation’s iconic places. It’s a balance that’s existed within the Department of the Interior for 100 years.
This spring, as you enjoy the great outdoors, we invite you to join us in celebrating the contributions to conservation that are provided through the Great American Outdoors Act. And because the work of restoring our national parks and public lands is not done yet, when we aren’t exploring the state in our free time, we’re working to defend the billions of dollars our industry provides to conserve our treasured spaces.
Aaron M. Johnson is vice president of public and legislative affairs at Western Energy Alliance. To learn more, visit www.WesternEnergyAlliance.org/GAOA.