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Conservation fund to expire

September 23, 2018

Connecticut just received nearly $1.5 million for park and conservation projects — but this could be the last time the state gets this money.

The fund that provides it is set to expire at the end of the month.

The Land and Water Conservation Act was established in 1965, making it the country’s biggest federal source of grant money to protect open spaces and foster outdoor recreation, including fishing and hunting.

But many are nervous Congress won’t permanently reauthorize the fund by the Sept. 30 expiration date.

“It’s a mechanism that has worked, been supported, is sustainable and is something that all of us have relied on,” said Tim Abbott, Housatonic Valley Association’s director of regional land conservation and greenprint.

The House Natural Resources Committee advanced a bill earlier this month that would permanently reauthorize the fund, but it doesn’t include money. The Senate has a similar bill in committee that does include funding. If both of these bills pass, the funding piece would have to resolved in committee.

As of Friday, dates have not been set to consider either bill.

Funding question

The biggest unknown rests on the motivation behind the funding. The fund is made up of a percentage of lease revenues for oil and gas companies to drill on the Outer Continental Shelf. It can be funded up to $900 million annually.

Money is then awarded in matching grants through the U.S. Department of Interior. About $18.4 billion has been appropriated since the fund started.

Abbott said as drilling increases, there are two schools of thought on what that could mean for the fund.

“The politically challenging part is trying to see whether it’s open season on more drilling means there’s more revenue and an easier ask, or more revenue for a less conservative-minded administration means hands-off,” he said.

In the press release announcing the recent round of grants from the fund, Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke said he supported permanently reauthorizing it and is hopeful Congress will meet the deadline.

Abbott said he plans to spend next week speaking with senators, including those in Rhode Island, to encourage them to sign on to the bill and show it has a majority of support so the Senate can take it up. So far, 46 senators are signers, including six Republicans.

All of Connecticut’s federal delegation has signed on to their respective reauthorization bills. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said he’s disappointed it hasn’t been permanently reauthorized.

“Congress must act, and I will work with my colleagues to ensure that this critical conservation program does not expire on September 30,” he said.

Connecticut’s benefits

The state has received $117 million since the fund was created. That money has been used to create community playgrounds, ball fields and the Silvio Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge along the Connecticut River watershed.

It’s also protected the National Scenic Trail in the state, added 1.3 acres to Weir Farm National Historic Site and helped the Cockaponset State Forest in Chester.

“It’s been very useful funding for land trusts,” said Catherine Rawson, Weantinoge Heritage Land Trust’s executive director. “It’s a terrific example of public/private partnerships.”

One of the biggest investments in the fund here has been to preserve the Highlands region in Northwestern Connecticut. Since 2007, $17 million has been invested to protect 1,500 acres.

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is also hoping to use some of this money to improve sanitary facilities at campgrounds and add acreage at state parks.

Lapse or renew

If the bill lapses, it can be reauthorized after the mid-term elections, either when the new members of Congress take office or with the current Congress. This would require completely new legislation though, Abbott said.

The fund has lapsed once before, but was reauthorized for three years shortly after.

If it’s not renewed though, the country will lose the biggest source of federal dollars to protect land. The Farm Bill is the only other source for federal grants on these types of projects.

If it is renewed, but is poorly funded, its harder for Connecticut to get money because not as many projects can be selected, Abbott said.

“We can’t compete with the larger, cheaper projects elsewhere,” he said.

While valued, the Land and Water Conservation Fund is just one funding source for land projects in Connecticut. There is also an open space grant program, which generally begins accepting applications in mid-September.

The state Bond Commission just approved $5 million for more land grants on Thursday.

Stevens said he hopes it’s renewed.

“It would be a significant loss,” he said. “The National Park Service is an excellent partner in conservation.”

kkoerting@newstimes.com; 203-731-3345

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