US Sen. Michael Bennet advocates for reauthorization of conservation fund in visit to Steamboat
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that Michael Bennet is a U.S. senator from Colorado and that a representative of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers was present at the visit.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The tailwaters of Stagecoach Reservoir, which course through the Sarvis Creek Wilderness Area south of Steamboat Springs, are a critical breeding ground for a sub-species of disease-resistant rainbow trout.
Whirling disease is a parasitic disease that causes trout and salmon to become deformed. It gets its name from the tail-chasing behavioral pattern it causes when a fish is heavily infested — a condition that can kill a young fish.
As fishery managers become more concerned by the impacts whirling disease has on the state’s trout population, the stretch of the Yampa River below Stagecoach Reservoir acts as a safety net. Should hatcheries fail, said Colorado Parks and Wildlife Area Wildlife Manager Kris Middledorf, it’s a reliable broodstock of healthy fish.
This stretch of river is protected by three public land agencies. It falls within the boundaries of a state wildlife area, Bureau of Land Management land and Routt National Forest. Until 2014, a small chunk of this land was privately owned — a fence prevented anglers from crossing into private land.
Using money from the Land Water Conservation Fund, the BLM and U.S. Forest Service purchased the land, connecting about two river miles in a corridor of public land.
On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, of Colorado, discussed the fund as he visited the site with Parks and Wildlife staff, representatives of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, the Vet Voice Foundation, local fly-fishing outfitters and BLM staff.
Royalties from off-shore oil and gas operations pay into the fund, which is used by state and federal agencies to pay for conservation, outdoor recreation and preservation projects.
“It’s very important from an economic standpoint, aesthetic standpoint and conservation standpoint,” Middledorf said.
Bennet, a Democrat, along with U.S. Republican Sen. Cory Gardener, also of Colorado, have voiced support for reauthorizing and fully funding the Land Water and Conservation Fund, which is set to expire on Sept. 30.
The fund was last reauthorized in 2015, though previous legislatures reauthorized it for decades at a time.
In May, a bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate that would permanently authorize the fund.
“We’re working really hard to try to get it reauthorized and get it funded properly,” Bennet said. “Cory Gardner and I both are on this. People should know that — that he’s working hard on this as well.”
Bennet said politics, not a lack of support for the program, have prevented the fund’s reauthorization.
“It has nothing to do with the Land Water Conservation Fund,” he said. “It’s just the incompetence of Washington, D.C., and this becomes a problem every single year almost.”
He said he’s seen support for the program in Colorado.
“We’ve seen politics in Washington opposed to our public lands that really is based on some kind of a theory in a right-wing think-tank in D.C., instead of reflecting the sentiment of people out here in Colorado,” Bennet said.
The fund has only twice been funded at the full $900 million the original 1964 act establishing the fund allowed for. It has not exceeded $450 million since 2005; it’s frequently redirected to other programs.
Critics of the fund, including the conservative policy organization the Heritage Foundation, balk at federal agencies’ practices of using the Land Water Conservation Fund to acquire new public lands and expand areas like National Monuments. They see this as government overreach as federal land managers struggle to maintain and manage lands it already owns.
“A much more typical project is the kind of project you see here, which is not a National Monument,” Bennet said. “Anybody who is making the argument that we shouldn’t reauthorize the Land Water Conservation Fund because of National Monuments is making a pretextual argument. It’s an excuse for not doing anything.”
Other opponents of the program, the Property and Environment Research Center, a think tank “dedicated to free-market environmentalism,” say the fund is increasingly being used by federal agencies instead of grants to states and does not fulfill its intended purpose.
Outside of protecting disease-resistant trout populations, the fund has other impacts in the county, according to Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan.
“This is what supports Routt County’s economy,” Corrigan said. “I mean we can draw a straight line between public lands and protected public lands to median income. That’s why people come here. That’s what drives the economy.”
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