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Sunday, April 8, 2012

No walk in the park: Pa. conservation funding can't survive too many more hits

If you’ve pedaled a bike down the York County Heritage Rail Trail, you’ve seen the results. If you’ve ever jogged along the path at the Wildwood Nature Center near the Harrisburg Area Community College campus, you’ve benefited. And if you’ve been lucky enough to take in the view of Cumberland and Perry counties from the white quartz cliffs of the Appalachian Trail, you know the walk was worth it.
 Each of these projects was funded in part by the Keystone Parks, Recreation and Conservation Fund started in 1994 after Pennsylvanians asked for it by overwhelmingly passing a referendum in 1993. More than 3,000 worthy projects have resulted from this funding, including 330 in the five-county region around Harrisburg.
Yet this fund could be eliminated entirely. Gov. Tom Corbett wants to move the money — consisting of a portion of real estate transfer taxes — into the general fund to be spent on other purposes because of a need for deep cuts overall.
This will amount to a final blow when it comes to supporting projects that range from trout streams to hiking trails. As activists point out, there have been $1.8 billion in cuts for state conservation efforts in recent years.
Enough is enough. One of the big draws of living in this state is open space. Residents and tourists take advantage of our many trails, parks and rivers. This week, the county health rankings came out. Central Pennsylvania had three counties in the top 10 and six in the top 17. One of the driving factors was access to parks and outdoor recreation.
While everyone understands the need for cuts and economizing, eliminating conservation efforts entirely would be foolhardy. It would be better to keep the program going, even if at a reduced rate. Some argue that Marcellus Shale impact fees could be a resource, but that money already has many claims on it.
A more obvious source of funding is the Oil and Gas Lease Fund. This is the money the state raises from leasing Pennsylvania lands for drilling. The fund is on target to bring in $60 million this fiscal year and is projected to grow swiftly in coming years. Taking a portion of those funds to continue programs such as the Keystone Fund and Growing Greener would go a long way toward ensuring our children and grandchildren will be able to play ball in the spring, canoe in the summer and hike in the fall.
Privatizing conservation efforts will never provide sufficient funding. In this economy, foundations also have scaled back. Plus, private funds are already being tapped to make up for prior government cuts Read More...