Environmentalists in Massachusetts are campaigning to make sure federal funding remains intact to preserve the commonwealth’s parks and natural resources.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. Field associate Ben Hellerstein and other members of Environment Massachusetts want to make sure there are many more to come.
“When it was first established in the 1960s, the idea was to create this dedicated source of funding of $900 million every single year to help support conservation efforts here in Massachusetts and all across the country,” Hellerstein said. “Then repeatedly over time Congress has diverted that money to pay for other things, other than conservation.”
In 2013, Congress allocated just one-third of the Fund’s intended level. Legislation that has made it through the House Appropriations Committee would drop funding to $152 million, just one-sixth of its allowed amount. Since April, Environment Massachusetts has collected more than 20,000 petition signatures urging full funding that Hellerstein says will be delivered to the Bay State’s U.S. Senators, Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey.
“So there’s no doubt in my mind that the people of our state really do love these places and want to see them fully funded and protected,” Hellerstein said. “I think that our Congressional delegation, especially Senator Warren and Senator Markey, have also been very strong on this issue helping to cosponsor a bill that would provide full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund in Congress, but I’m not sure that all of their colleagues necessarily share the same set of priorities.”
The bill Hellerstein mentions is sponsored by Senator Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican. Markey and Warren, both Democrats, are two of 42 Senate cosponsors. Beyond even the concern of funding levels is the chance that the Land and Water Conservation Fund could no longer exist. Its current mandate is set to run out next year if not continued by an act of Congress. Hellerstein is hopeful.
“So we do need Congress to act within the next year or so to renew the program,” he said. “We are optimistic that that can happen. There’s actually pretty strong bipartisan support for this issue in Congress, which isn’t all that common with our environmental issues these days.”
Using revenue from offshore oil and gas drilling on federally owned areas, over its history the Fund has contributed more than $200 million to parks in Massachusetts stretching from the Cape Cod National Seashore and The Boston Common to Bash Bish Falls and the Appalachian Trail, according to Hellerstein.
“It also does help to pay for park improvements as well,” Hellerstein said. “So it could be things like building new trails, fixing playground equipment, restoring a beach or a lakeshore, you name it. So certainly without that source of funding there would just be less support available to make sure that our parks are protected and in a state that we can continue to enjoy them.”
A recent report from Mass Audubon found that between 2005 and 2013, roughly 38,000 acres of forest and natural land was developed. That equals 13 acres a day. With support from the LWCF and other programs, Massachusetts has preserved 41 acres a day during that same period, according to Mass Audubon’s legislative director Karen Heymann.
“We’re the third most densely populated in the nation,” Heymann said. “Our open lands, forests and agricultural lands are continually under pressure from development particularly now as the economy has started to improve after the recession of the past years, I think that we will see even more pressure on our natural resources.”
For Hellerstein, preservation is the most important purpose of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
“In fact some of the areas that are losing open space most rapidly are in the Pioneer Valley and the Berkshires where forests and farmland are being converted to suburban subdivisions,” Hellerstein explained. “So I think especially in western Mass. we certainly we have a need for a program like the Land and Water Conservation Fund to help to buy up important and vulnerable land that might otherwise be developed and make sure that we are preserving it for future generations. We know that once we lose this land to development, it’s probably lost forever.”