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Earth Matters Funds for conservation and wildlife protection threatened

January 5, 2019

There’s a 202-acre collection of lands on Coltsfoot Mountain in Cornwall which the town’s Conservation Trust wants to preserve.

The state of Connecticut agrees. This fall, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection gave the trust a $404,300 grant toward the land’s purchase.

But down in Washington, D.C., the US Congress has become legislatively torpid.

Among the things it didn’t do this year is to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, something it’s done since 1964 when the fund began.

Nor did it allocate any spending for projects in the pipeline, which usually runs $400 million to $450 million a year.

Therefore the Cornwall Project is missing some funding for the Coltsfoot Mountain Land.

That money would come from the Highland Conservation Act. It, in turn, gets its money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, said Tim Abbott, regional conservation director for the Housatonic Valley Association.

Those funds are also missing from national parks and wildlife refuge and a host of state land projects.

“It’s everything,” said Abbott of the Land and Water Fund.

“It’s not a major part of our funding, but it’s an important part in the mix,” said Graham Stevens, the DEEP’s director of constituent affairs and land management.

The fund has made major allocations to big projects like the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge, which runs along the Connecticut River from Vermont and New Hampshire, through Massachusetts into Connecticut.

But Stevens said the state recently used Land and Water Conservation Fund money to open two urban parks in Hartford and Bridgeport.

Here’s the perplexing part. The Land and Water Conservation Fund always has always been popular, receiving bipartisan support from members of Congress. Red or blue the states all get some money back for land and water conservation projects.

And it doesn’t cost the taxpayers anything. The entire fund gets its money by siphoning off a small portion of the fees oil companies pay the US for offshore drilling rights.

But there is hope. The change in the U.S. Congress — with Democrats controlling the House of Representatives — may awaken the Congress to the fund’s value.

Abbott said 50 U.S. senators, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Shumer, have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill.

“It’s gotten out of committee,” Abbott said. “It’s on the floor.”

Likewise, Patrick Comins, director of the Connecticut Audubon Society, is hopeful something good will happen with the land and water fund.

“I hear it’s highly supported,” he said.

Alas, the same can’t be said for the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, which Comins and others have described as a once-in-a-generation attempt to help states pay for wildlife protection and habitat restoration projects.

The bill would work in the same fashion as the Land and Water Fund. Rather than using taxpayer money to fund its work, it would get funding by collecting a small share of the vast fees companies pay for developing energy and mineral rights on federal land.

Supporters believe that small share could generate $1.3 billion in funds a year. Connecticut’s share could be about $12 million, which is desperately needed as both the state and federal governments are cutting back on their support for environmental protection.

But Comins said the bill supporting the act is now hopelessly stalled and may have to be re-introduced.

Again, he hopes a new Congress, a changed House, may pick up the act rather than letting it dwell in legislative limbo.

“Right now, we’re looking at a new world,” he said of the Democrat-controlled House.

But some things the Trump Administration is doing elsewhere has Comins deeply troubled.

One is legislation before Congress that would change the federal Endangered Species Act — to the detriment of the species.

“It would make it easier to remove endangered species from their listing, but make it harder to put new species on it,” Comins said.

It would also remove federal protections for species listed as “threatened” rather than “endangered.”

Comins said that means at least two shorebirds in the state — the red knot and the piping plover, both listed as threatened — would lose some of the protection they now have.

Then there is the saltmarsh sparrow. A small, shy brown bird, it nests in coastal marshes. Connecticut is one of its important nesting sites on the East Coast.

But rising oceans may someday flood those marshes, and make the saltmarsh sparrow’s habitat untenable.

“It should be an endangered species,” Comins said.

Contact Robert Miller at earthmattersrgm@gmail.com

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