It’s state budget time, and the members of regional advisory committees on open space conservation from the Adirondacks to Niagara and Long Island will be watching that fraction of one percent of the state budget called the Environmental Protection Fund. Will the EPF continue to recover from the recessionary influenza it caught in 2009?
New York State’s extraordinary three million acre Forest Preserve in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks, and its extensive State Park and Historic area system (330,000 acres) outside of these Parks are two big reasons why the state has been a national leader in conserving forests and open space since the 19th century.
Another is nearly million acres conserved through the use of conservation easements on private lands. The EPF and spending from the 1996 $1.75 billion Clean Water/Air Bond Act (expended years ago) has funded this growth: 85% growth in conservation easements since 1992, 5% growth in the Forest Preserve during that time span.
A fundamentally fair accompaniment to the Forest Preserve are the taxes that all New Yorkers pay on these state holdings to the counties, towns and school districts in Adirondack and Catskill Parks – upwards of $80 million annually authorized by the Real Property Tax Law. Another section of law requires the state to pay its fair share of the taxes on conservation easement lands. Spreading these taxes out across the entire state is fundamentally fair because all New Yorkers benefit both directly and indirectly from the wilderness in our Forest Preserve. These tax provisions, also, make New York a leader.
State Ranking lists put New York first among all states in the country in the numbers of state parks, recreation areas and natural areas, and second, after Alaska, in state park acreage (including 6 million acre Adirondack Park and 700,000 acre Catskill Park, presumably).
New York State was one of the first to create a Statewide Open Space Conservation Plan (1992, updated every five years) and related parts of the Environmental Conservation Law incorporating a state policy, open space inventory, regional and state advisory committees, and annual appropriations process. Another part of the law created a permanent funding source, the EPF, in 1993, established as a trust funded by a small percentage of the Real Estate Transfer Tax (RETT).
Passing the EPF in the Legislature in the summer of 1993 was a grueling affair for all concerned. It was my one all-nighter in the Capitol. I think the bill passed the Assembly close to 4 AM. Many inside and caucusing outside that Chamber, myself included, were upset about the midnight compromises required by the Senate to pass it. Twenty years later, I conclude those were worth it.
I’ve been a member of the legislatively-created Region 5 Open Space Conservation Advisory Committee since 1991, and participation in the dialogue and debate with colleagues and local government leaders has been, mostly, a rewarding experience. Although that dialogue has rarely been heated, more often it reveals that local government and environmental representatives share a common appreciation for the farms, forests, trails, waterways and rich rural heritage which are the focus of the committee’s work.
Yet, in recent years New York has lost the pace required of a conservation leader. The 1996 bond act was exhausted years ago. The EPF, legally an accruing trust fund, was raided during the first part of this century by more than half a billion dollars to pay for other parts of the state budget. The “IOUs” were not honored. Then, in 2009, Governor Paterson and the Legislature cut the EPF appropriation by over 45%. The open space protection line in the EPF budget was cut more than half. In his first three budgets Governor Cuomo has ended the raids on the EPF.
But the cuts made during the Paterson administration were disproportionately more, far more in fact, than other agency program cuts of 5-15% during the recession. EPF cuts were kept in place until this year when Governor Cuomo and the Legislature, thankfully, increased it from $134 million to $153 million. Yet, EPF’s high point was $255 million in 2008.
So, significant re-growth in annual EPF budget appropriations this year is a matter of some urgency. Half a billion annually were easily justified in 2008 for environmental needs across the state. After Hurricanes Irene, Lee and Storm Sandy, and the urgent need for environmental restoration and better planning along our rivers and coastlines, the needs and purposes for the fund have grown significantly larger.
As for staffing, maintenance and stewardship of the open space we have protected over the years, the situation is dire. The State Land Stewardship budget line in the EPF is just $16 million, but that has to cover a myriad of purposes and projects from Long Island and NYC to Niagara. At most, stewardship spending for the state comes down to several dollars per acre of state land, or less. Being so cash-strapped, our state conservation agencies, whose own staff are down 40% or more, have been forced to collaborate with not for profits and local governments. Collaboration is a very positive thing, but it cannot hide the miserly treatment of our state lands and natural resources during preparation of the state budget.
The EPF would be in even worse shape were it not for the Friends of NY’s Environment, a coalition of over 100 organizations who formed during the recession as a united voice for environmental appropriations and the integrity of the EPF. This coalition has made a big difference by raising lawmakers’ consciousness of the many recreational, agricultural, forestry, open space, clean water and related economic benefits of EPF appropriations for their rural and urban constituents. Statistics demonstrate a $7 return on every dollar invested in the EPF. Friends’ motto “Environmental funding works” reminds governors and legislators that many jobs are tied directly and indirectly to the health of the state’s natural resources.
Yet, our EPF is stuck in a rut and not just due to the recession, but also, apparently, to stubborn hostility among some key gubernatorial aides. There is both an annual appropriations problem and a perennial spending problem. The EPF should be an accruing state trust and half a billion or more is raised each year through the real estate tax. In reality, the state budget office allows into this historically leaky locked box a mere fraction of its legal authorization from the RETT, frustrating fund administrators at the NYS DEC, Ag and Markets and Office of Parks, and forcing farmers, foresters and land trusts who have signed a contract for land conservation to wait years for a check. This backlog of unfulfilled obligations sends out a very negative message to others hoping to protect their farmland, woodlot or stream corridor.
For a decade the small not for profit Lake George Land Conservancy held onto 1400 acres deemed critical to the state’s goals of preserving the lake’s water quality, and pay all these holding costs and interest on the loans. Finally, in April 2013 the state fulfilled its 10-year old contractual obligation and cut the organization a check. There are dozens of these cases. Just this past month, the state cut a check to Saratoga County to enable a local farmer to place a conservation easement on 400 agricultural acres east of Saratoga Lake – farm country facing development pressure. The farmer entered into a contract for an easement six years ago.
According to American Farmland Trust, in 2011 there were approximately $70 million of farmland protection projects with signed contracts waiting for funding. In the current fiscal year, the Farmland Protection Program appropriation within the EPF is only $13 million. That does not mean $13 million is included in the Department of Agriculture’s spending plan. Far from it. It takes more than a dozen years to pay off existing projects, and in recent years Agriculture and Markets has stopped issuing requests for proposals for the program. A New York State Comptroller report issued in 2011 noted that “between 1996 and 2008, farmland protection projects totaling $556 million were turned away due to insufficient funding.”
New York’s EPF should be there in good times and in bad, and that was the intent in 1993. Some of the nation’s most important public conservation programs were put into place during the Great Depression of 1930-1940. It was terribly shortsighted that public investments in our environment paying long-term dividends to society crashed so disproportionately to other spending programs during our most recent recession.
How is the Empire State doing in its investment in land conservation compared to other states? Not so badly, but nothing to show New York is regaining its leadership. Public Dollars Spent on Land Conservation charts prepared by the Trust for Public Land show the following (latest figures available):
New York State between 1998-2011: $ 2.3 billion spent to protect 679,000 acres
Pennsylvania (same time span): $ 1.6 billion spent to protect 496,000 acres
Massachusetts (same time span): $677 million spent to protect 147,000 acres
Connecticut (1998-2005): $ 471 million spent to protect 75,000 acres
Florida (1998-2005): $4.4 billion spent to protect 1.6 million acres
California (1998-2005): $3.9 billion spent to protect 2.4 million acres
New Jersey (1998-2005): $ 830 million spent to protect 259,000 acres
Among these seven states on a per capita basis, New York ranks third in spending, and third in acreage protected. But New York’s spending includes proceeds from the long-exhausted 1996 Environmental Bond Act. Updated figures for CT, FL, CA and NJ through 2011 may also drop NYS down a notch.
For mayors of our cities, supervisors of our small towns, county executives, and those serving on open space advisory committees, to the nature centers, lake and stream stewards, boys and girls clubs, farmers and woodlot owners struggling to keep going, to the anglers, hunters, trappers, hikers, snowmobilers and paddlers keeping their outdoor traditions alive, this month let’s all remind Governor Cuomo to grow the fund (EPF) that binds our outdoor enthusiasts together, and pays a large dividend.