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$1.1 trillion federal spending bill reauthorizes conservation fund

Bill would not block water rule, but keeps greater sage-grouse off endangered species list

WASHINGTON – After weeks of negotiating and two short-term funding bills, congressional lawmakers are set to vote Friday on a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill that will fund the federal government through the end of September 2016.

The 2,009-page bill, once passed, would avert a federal government shutdown and includes a number of provisions that impact Colorado and other Western states.

The bill reauthorizes the 50-year old Land and Water Conservation Fund that expired in September and lawmakers bickered over whether to reform the program or to permanently reauthorize it.

Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, and Cory Gardner, a Republican, previously expressed their support for permanently reauthorizing the fund. The conservation fund has provided about $17 billion for the expansion of parks, public spaces and protected forests across the country.

Competing legislation was put forward in the U.S. House of Representatives this year, with Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, calling for an overhaul of the fund, while Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, pushed for permanent reauthorization.

The spending bill would ensure a three-year reauthorization of the conservation fund and $450 million for the coming fiscal year – a 50 percent increase over the fund’s previous funding level. If passed, the spending bill would effectively end the legislative debate over the conservation fund’s future for the next three years.

“LWCF is one of our country’s most successful conservation programs,” said Bennet, who helped secure its funding in the spending bill. “It has benefitted both urban and rural communities alike, helping to preserve parks, rivers and forests and increasing the public’s access and recreational opportunities in these places.”

While the conservation fund reauthorization received bipartisan support, Republican lawmakers failed in their efforts to include provisions in the spending bill that would have killed the Waters of the United States rule.

WOTUS, which is under a nationwide preliminary injunction as the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals hears challenges to the rule, expands the 1972 Clean Water Act’s definition of “waters of the United States” to include smaller bodies of water. Critics of the rule say that WOTUS’s language expands the Environmental Protection Agency’s control over private lands across the country.

Although the spending bill also includes language barring the government from listing the greater sage-grouse as an endangered species, lawmakers rejected amendments that would have blocked the implementation of conservation plans for the bird. Environmentalists consider the grouse’s population to be an indicator of ecosystem health.

“It’s time to carry on the hard work of bringing the bird back from the brink of no return and ensuring public lands that sustain hunting, angling, recreation and local economies remain healthy,” said Aaron Kindle, the western sportsmen’s campaign manager for the National Wildlife Federation.

A spokesperson for Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, said that the congressman was going through the more than 2,000 pages of the bill and would vote on the substance of the package as a whole on Friday.

egraham@durangoherald.com. Edward Graham is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.

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