From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):
A U.S. Bureau of Land Management proposal to expand the Blanca Wetlands could be left in the lurch by the expiration of a congressional conservation fund. Congress failed to renew the authority for the Land and Water Conservation Fund on Wednesday, the end of the federal fiscal year.
The expansion of the wetlands, which is a temporary home for dozens of songbirds and shorebirds that migrate through the San Luis Valley, had been paired with a project by the agency on the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument.
The White House’s 2016 budget called for $18 million in permanent funding for the project and another $22 million subject to future appropriations by Congress.
Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in a statement that the fund, which draws off revenue from off-shore oil and gas drilling, faced a needlessly uncertain future.
“I’m extremely disappointed that, despite overwhelming bipartisan support, Congress has allowed this innovative and effective program to expire,” she said.
A spokeswoman for Jewell said Interior had given no instruction to the land-management agencies it oversees on whether to pursue other avenues of funding for their projects.
The BLM hoped to expand the wetlands through the purchase of 12,000 acres of private land from willing sellers.
The area targeted for expansion had included wetlands as recently as the 1940s but had dried up from drought or agricultural development.
The agency now maintains habitat at the 8,700-acre Blanca Wetlands by pumping groundwater into the marshes and ponds at the site.
The proposed funding for the national monument, which sits just south of the valley across the New Mexico state line, would have gone toward the protection of cultural and historic sites.
And while Jewell and a host of national conservation groups called for the reauthorization and full funding, many Republican congressmen from the Western U.S. called for reform of the program.
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., whose district includes the valley, said those reforms should move the fund away from purchasing more land for federal agencies, although he did not object to its use for land exchanges with willing private landowners.
The fund would be better served by helping federal agencies manage the land they have, Tipton said in a written statement.
“LWCF reauthorization provides an opportunity for reforms that support addressing the growing maintenance backlogs for national parks, roads, trails and facilities,” he said.