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Northeast States Struggle to Fund Land Conservation
Northeast Environmental Hub
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As state budgets implode, conservation projects are shelved.


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4:48 minutes (2.31 MB)
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As WNPR’s Nancy Cohen reports in the story Economy Creates Opportunities to Protect Land, plummeting land values mean there are new opportunities for conserving open space in the Northeast. Forests and farms that would have sold at premium prices two years ago are sitting on the market and prices are dropping. But state officials in the region are struggling to find money for conservation projects as their own budgets implode. As part of a collaboration of stations in the Northeast, North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann has this story.

When Mike Carr and I first paddled into Follensby Pond in New York's Adirondack Mountains last year, his organization, the Nature Conservancy, had just pulled off two of the biggest land protection deals ever in the East – buying up more than 170,000 acres. The gem was a pristine lake five hours north of New York City.

In 1858, philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson came to Follsenby to meditate on the beauty and meaning of pure wilderness. Carr took me to the very place on the shore where Emerson camped.

“It’s really timeless, I mean this has not changed” said Carr. “As we sit here, this is what Emerson looked at – completely unbroken shoreline. The lake feels endless.”

The lake is so remote that it was used by biologists to reintroduce eagles to New York state after they were wiped out by DDT contamination. As we paddled, a late-summer hailstorm swept over our boats.

Saving Follensby has been a goal for green groups in the East for half a century. During the real-estate boom of the last decade, activists worried that iconic landscapes like it would be snapped-up by developers looking to build new lakeshore vacation homes.

“The state has for decades now, been introduced in adding Follensby to the forest preserve,” said Carr. “They included it in the open space plan as a priority project. So we thought we’d take this risk, take this chance, for the people of New York State and the world really.”

It was a huge risk. To protect Follensby and vast forests along the Upper Hudson River, Carr and the Conservancy bought the land outright, taking on more than $120 million in debt.

The idea back in those prosperous times was that private donors and taxpayers would rush in to help finance the deals. But now the economy has tanked states across the Northeast are facing historic deficits. That means far less money for land deals.

Kim Elliman is head of the Open State Institute, an organization that helps find money for land conservation projects across the East, from Georgia to Maine.

“The public shortfall in funding for land conservation has all but brought land conservation transactions to a full stop,” said Elliman.

This year, Vermont’s governor proposed zeroing out funding for land conservation before the legislature restored some funds. In Maine, a land conservation bond act was pared back nearly in half -- and new funding was delayed to 2010. In New York a $5 billion environmental bond act was shelved by the legislature.

As a consequence, Elliman said some big opportunities could slip away.

“Land prices have fallen off pretty dramatically and lands that we would have targeted are going unbid for,” Elliman said.

Political opposition to public funding for these deals has also grown. New York State Senator Betty Little, a Republican, represents the Adirondack Park.

“I would just question, why we have to do that right now?” asked Little. “If the economy is so bad, why aren't those things put on the back burner instead of laying people off?”

State officials in New York have said that they are still committed to buying big chunks of Adirondack forestlands. But with New York’s state budget imploding, the Democratic administration of Governor David Paterson signaled that land purchases would be a far lower priority.

Paterson diverted a big chunk of the money that had been earmarked for conservation. Matt Andersen is a spokesman for New York’s Budget Office.

“A lot of the things that Governor Paterson is proposing to reduce are things that he supported in the past and I think that shows the level of the fiscal crisis that we’re in right now,” said Andersen. “Things that were sacred cows before really aren’t.”

This loss of taxpayer money comes at a time when green groups across East are struggling with their own budget woes.

According to the Open Space Institute’s Kim Elliman, foundation funding and private donations are down sharply.

“One of the problems for people who want to try to conserve land is the lack of certainty. And that’s what we’ve been told by foundations – that we can’t depend on them to the same extent or as quickly as we might have in the past,” said Elliman.

Across the country, green groups like the Trust for Public Land and The Nature Conservancy have been forced to lay off staff.

The Conservancy’s Adirondack chapter is working to restructure tens of millions of dollars in debt to buy more time for the state to chip in.

Executive director Mike Carr said without that taxpayer support, the Follsenby deal won’t work.

“This is really an opportunity that the state of New York needs to step up and take,” said Carr. “We were willing to be the bridge.”

Green groups say if the economy begins to recover by next year, when states get to work on their next budgets, the land conservation bottleneck could end.

But if the crisis continues, they say, public support for saving big chunks of land like Follensby Pond could dry up completely.

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