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Washington Watch – January, 2012

January 18, 2012

U.S. Capitol, ca. 1920 - Theodor Horydczak/Library of Congress

Periodically, the folks in The Trust for Public Land’s Federal Affairs department prepare a summary of conservation news from the nation’s capitol.

Story Summaries
(Details on all stories here)

FY 2012 Budget Complete; Many Conservation Programs Survive Difficult Budget Year
On December 23, President Obama signed into law the Fiscal Year 2012 Omnibus Appropriations bill, thus completing the annual budget and appropriations process. This Omnibus bill covers 9 of the 12 individual appropriations bills; the other 3 were included in a “minibus” approved by Congress in late November. Despite the significant focus in Washington on cutting spending, many conservation programs survived the FY 2012 budget process in relatively good standing

LWCF Full Funding Bill Now Stands at 27 Co-Sponsors
On April 15, 2011, Conrad Anker, world-renowned alpine climber—who discovered lost explorer George Mallory’s body on Mt. Everest—testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, the Environment and Related Agencies in support of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The fund was reduced by 33% in the Fiscal Year 2011 budget and could face further cuts. Supported by offshore oil and gas leasing revenues—not taxpayers’ dollars—the LWCF ensures all Americans have access to local community parks and playgrounds and the vast expanses of federal public lands.

Attention Congress: Investing in Land Conservation Helps Our Economy
Over the past year, the annual budget and appropriations process has cut conservation funding disproportionately to its benefits. Key programs such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund, State and Tribal Wildlife Grants and EPA programs have been slashed by more than 30 percent, in contrast to overall non-defense discretionary spending, which has been cut by just 7 percent.

America’s Great Outdoors (AGO) Initiative
In 2010, President Obama launched the America’s Great Outdoors (AGO) initiative to bring in outside conservation partners to help create his 21st century conservation and recreation agenda. During the summer of 2010, the leadership of the Department of Interior, the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Council on Environmental Quality, and the Army Corps of Engineers conducted approximately 51 listening sessions in various areas across the country to engage adults and youth alike on their conservation vision and how to make the Federal Government a better partner with states, tribes, and local communities.

Transportation Reauthorization Bill Update
When Congress last passed a multiyear transportation bill (SAFETEA-LU) in 2005, it was set to expire on September 30, 2009. Because the current gas tax does not produce enough revenue to support existing transportation programs, Congress has been struggling to pass another multi-year bill and has only succeeded to date in passing 7 short-term extensions. The current one expires March 31, 2012.

Conservation Tax Incentive Extension Must Wait for 2012
Congress adjourned for the year without extending the conservation tax incentive that encourages landowners to donate conservation easements. While Congress agreed after much wrangling to extend temporarily the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits, no action was taken on a multitude of other tax provisions that expire December 31, 2011 or during 2012. This is disappointmenting news for landowners and those in the land trust community who recognize the importance of this conservation tool. If history is any guide, however, it is likely that the incentive will be extended sometime next year and made retroactive.

Farm Bill Set to Expire at the End of FY 2012
Congress adjourned for the year without extending the conservation tax incentive that encourages landowners to donate conservation easements. While Congress agreed after much wrangling to extend temporarily the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits, no action was taken on a multitude of other tax provisions that expire December 31, 2011 or during 2012. This is disappointmenting news for landowners and those in the land trust community who recognize the importance of this conservation tool. If history is any guide, however, it is likely that the incentive will be extended sometime next year and made retroactive.

Details on all stories here

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Senator Robert C. Byrd, conservationist

July 7, 2010

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park - Photo: Ken Sherman

A few years ago, I attended a family wedding that took me, for the first time, to West Virginia. My wife and I loved the wild look of the state and decided to stay after the wedding to explore. We stopped for an afternoon at Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park, explored the New River Gorge National Recreation Area, and drove north from Lewisburg along the edge of the Monongahela National Forest.

I knew, of course, that we were on a kind of Robert Byrd conservation  tour of the Mountaineer State. If federal money was used to support a West Virginia conservation project over the last five decades, Senator Robert C. Byrd helped to make it happen. The nation’s longest serving senator, who died on June 28 at the age of 92, left behind a conservation legacy that will support his home state’s quality of life and vital tourism economy for many decades into the future.

In a July 4 letter to the editor of The Charleston Gazette, TPL, the Nature Conservacy, and the Conservation Fund affirmed the senator’s conservation legacy:

America’s great outdoors lost a strong supporter on June 28, with the death of Sen. Robert C. Byrd, but his legacy will live on in the mountains, rivers and forests that future generations of West Virginians will enjoy.

Robert Byrd as Senate Majority Leader - Official portrait by Michael Shane Neal

Robert Byrd served 51 years in the Senate and was Senate Majority Leader from 1977 to 1981. He was first elected in 1959 and was already beginning his third term the year TPL was founded. TPL has since protected more that 74,000 acres in West Virginia, the vast majority of it using funding generated with Senator Byrd’s help.

With this money from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund TPL helped add School House Ridge and Murphy Farm to the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, create the Gauley River National Recreation Area—a prime whitewater rafting site and economic engine for its region—and add 6,000 acres to the Monongehela National Forest around the resort town of White Sulpher Springs, one of many TPL-assisted additions to that national forest that the senator supported.

An obituary of Senator Robert Byrd can be found on the New York Times website, and his Wikipedia entry is extensive.

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Harlem Health Group Highlights New York Playgrounds Program

June 29, 2010
Playground and M.S. 216, Queens

New TPL-created playground at M.S. 216, Queens - Photo: Nana Taimour

TPL’s national office is moving in July, and the last few weeks will be remembered around here as the time of the great purge, as staff sort through more than 20 years’ worth of documents to decide what to move and what to recycle. My personal favorite find so far is a typed manuscript entitled “The Trust for Public Land (Beginning Statement of Goals and Policies),” which I decided to keep.

I unearthed this document from files inherited from a predecessor that date from 1973, the year of TPL’s first project. The content makes clear how central urban parks and conservation were to TPL’s founders. As an organizational statement of purpose, the document puts forth: “To acquire and arrange for the preservation of open space to serve the needs of urban people,” citing as examples pocket parks, recreation areas near cities, and working farms and ranches.

I thought of this document yesterday when I learned of the interviews with Mary Alice Lee and Maddalena Polletta posted on gethealthyharlem.org, a blog of the Harlem Health Promotion Center. Mary Alice is director of TPL’s New York City Playground Program, which works with the city’s Department of Education, Mayor Bloomberg’s office, schools, and communities to turn barren asphalt schoolyards into real community playgrounds and parks. Maddalena is a TPL staff member working on the program. Over the years, TPL has helped to create 260 New York community parks and playgrounds serving more than 400,000 children and family members across the city.

The interviews do a good job of summarizing the program. Topics include how the program decides where playgrounds should be built, what program leaders look for in a school, how students help with playground design, and how communities participate in the park-creation process.

The interviews are split between several posts, so be sure to look for the links to the related posts at the bottom of the page or in the right sidebar. Before-and-after photos show a playground transformation in East Harlem.  According to the site, podcasts of the interviews will soon be posted, so if you can wait, you can take Mary Alice and Maddalena with you on your own visit to a park.

While TPL’s work has expanded in the last 40 years, helping to create city parks, playgrounds, and recreation areas has been a constant priority over that time. More recently, the need for playgrounds has garnered attention as one possible solution to the crisis of obesity among schoolchildren—for example, as a key part First Lady Michele Obama’s Let’s Move! effort. TPL’s founders must feel gratified that bringing parks to city people—the idea they began promoting in 1973—has resulted in city park programs as robust as the one in New York.

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Large landscape “listening” in Montana

June 2, 2010

Swan Valley / Montana Legacy Project Photo: John Lambing

For the first “listening session” of President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, Washington and local leaders gathered yesterday at the Rolling Stone Ranch in Montana to hear about the many cooperative conservation efforts to protect the Crown of the Continent ecosystem.

Interesting context for this meeting can be found in yesterday’s Billings Gazette, in a piece by Rick Graetz, a geography professor at the University of Montana and co-director of the university’s Crown of the Continent Initiative.

In 1886, James Willard Schultz and George Bird Grinnell traveled through what is now present-day Glacier National Park. Together, they trekked from St. Mary’s Lake into the Swiftcurrent region and eventually clambered up the famous glacier that now bears Grinnell’s name.

Grinnell was so enchanted with the sweep of the land that he would return again and again for the next 41 years, all the while promoting protection of the area he termed the “Crown of the Continent.” Exactly 100 years ago last month, his efforts helped create Glacier National Park.

Today, the original vision behind Grinnell’s “Crown” has been expanded to include a vastly important region that extends beyond the confines of Glacier. And every year, that vision grows stronger and more vivid thanks to the conservation work of Montanans from all walks of life.

Today’s coverage of the meeting includes an AP story and an informative piece in the Missoulian that tries to make clear why the administration chose this region to kick-off its effort to highlight large-landscape, cooperative conservation.

With so many subjects and so many speakers, it was a little unclear what the whole gathering was about. But as the spring rainshowers came and went, it became apparent the sheer size of Montana’s recent land management efforts was a learning opportunity for the rest of the nation.

“There’s a growing awareness that it’s going to take local leadership and vision like this to drive progress,” [Secretary of Agriculture Tom] Vilsack said. “Maybe not to drive but to facilitate. We’re seeing it in the Everglades in Florida and in the Maine forestlands and in Arizona there’s some of this happening. But it may not be as mature as it’s happening here. You’ve institutionalized the process here.”

Some projects, like the Blackfoot Challenge or the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, have been gestating in local communities for decades. Others, like the Montana Legacy Project’s buyout of Plum Creek Timber Co. lands, came together in a matter of years. All together, they involve hundreds of thousands of acres coming under new management strategies designed to protect special places and preserve local jobs and communities.

TPL has been an active player in this work, most recently as a partner with The Nature Conservancy in the Montana Legacy Project to protect 310,000 acres within the 10 million acres Crown of the Continent ecosystem.

A New Report

In a related matter, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy has released a policy report, “Large Landscape Conservation.”

In response to increasing activity at the large landscape scale, leaders from the public, private, and nongovernmental sectors participated in two national policy dialogues and many other informal discussions in 2009. Convened by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and the Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Policy at The University of Montana, the intent of the dialogues was to synthesize what we know about large landscape conservation and to identify the most important needs as we move forward.

There is general agreement that the promise of large landscape conservation is its focus on land and water problems at an appropriate geographic scale, regardless of political and jurisdictional boundaries. While it is hard to define precisely what constitutes a large landscape conservation effort, there is a growing consensus that such efforts are multijurisdictional, multipurpose, and multistakeholder, and they operate at various geographic scales using a variety of governance arrangements.

I haven’t had a chance to review the report as yet, but the Lincoln Institute’s materials are always meaty and useful.

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Conservation Finance Links, 5/2

May 3, 2010

Twice each month TPL’s Conservation Finance service publishes links to conservation finance stories from around the nation.

Colorado
Discussion of South Suburban Parks and Rec District upcoming property tax levy
Another on this topic

Maryland
Governor pledges full funding to Program Open space

Michigan
Acme Township nears park milestone
Groups discuss plan for Ann Arbor open space millage

Montana
Lewis and Clark County ready to spend 2008 voter approved open space bond

Massachusetts
Boston’s Greenway facing financial challenges
Another on this topic

New Jersey
Morris County touts open space tax cut
Another municipality reduces its open space tax

New York
Leaders ponder statewide open space funding
Long Island preserved less open space in 2009

Pennsylvania
Monroe County named leader in open space preservation

Ohio
Granville prepares for open space tax renewal

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Washington Watch

April 28, 2010

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Periodically, the folks in TPL’s Federal Affairs department prepare a summary of conservation news from the nation’s capitol. The Washington Watch newsletter is available on the Web or by free email subscription.

Clicking on each topic brings up additional information.

White House Conference on America’s Great Outdoors
On Friday, April 16th, the White House sponsored a conference on America’s Great Outdoors, describing the event as a way to “address the challenges, opportunities and innovations surrounding modern-day land conservation and the importance of reconnecting Americans to the outdoors.” The event was held at the Department of the Interior. TPL was pleased to have been invited to attend the conference and sent several representatives to the conference including TPL’s President Will Rogers and California State Director Sam Hodder.

TPL and Urban Parks
TPL has joined the recently-formed Urban Park Coalition, spearheaded by the National Park and Recreation Association (NRPA), whose aims are to engage with Congress on urban park legislation. TPL is working on several fronts to advance knowledge about and consideration of the role of parks in addressing healthy communities.

Community Forest Program Grants
The Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program, authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill, is a new program that will provide matching federal grants for purchase of local forestlands by local governments, tribes, and qualifying nonprofits. The program will ensure funding for the creation or expansion of community forests that can meet local needs for recreation, economic development, watershed protection, and other ecosystem services.

Conservation Tax Incentive Extension Awaits Congressional Action
The enhanced tax deduction for donations of conservation easements expired at the end of 2009. Despite the bipartisan support of well over half of the members of the House of Representatives and forty-one senators, a permanent extension of the provision has not yet been enacted. There has been some action on a temporary extension, however, but even that has been caught up in the cumbersome legislative machinery of Congress.

House and Senate “Dear Colleague,” Letters on LWCF and FLP
With the congressional appropriations process underway for FY 2011, Members of the House and Senate have written to the chairmen and ranking members of the respective appropriations subcommittees that oversee the Interior Department and the Forest Service to demonstrate their support for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and the Forest Legacy Program.

Public Testifies on Land Conservation Funding
Every year the House and Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittees invite the public to submit written testimony in advance of the writing of the annual Interior spending bills. The process allows the public to comment on important issues and to support various programs and projects before the subcommittees. This year the House Interior Subcommittee accepted written testimony until March 19. The Subcommittee also held a Public Witness Day session on March 25 in which participants delivered spoken testimony to the subcommittee.

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Conservation and historic preservation

April 23, 2010

Raspberry Farm, Hampton Falls, NH - Photo: Jerry and Marcy Monkman/EcoPhotography.com

 

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has added a section to its website that focuses on the link between conservation and preservation. Visiting there for the first time yesterday, I was pleased to see that TPL Heritage Lands projects among the examples cited. 

When a place has significant cultural importance the historic preservation movement stands ready to protect it. Many of us are also members of land conservation organizations that work to protect places of profound natural, agricultural, or open space value. But what about special places that boast a range of values? These places – often defined as cultural landscapes – are more than the sum of their parts. Loss of one dimension diminishes our experience of the whole place. Yet these complex sites can present challenges for organizations and resources structured to address solely historic preservation or land protection. 

Among the historic landscapes and buildings profiled in these pages are: 

  • The 175-mile-long Journey Through Hallowed Ground heritage corridor, a historic route along which TPL has protected land, and which we featured in the fall 2006 issue of Land&People magazine
  • The New Hampshire homestead of statesman and famed orator Daniel Webster (1782-1852, protected by TPL and local preservation groups in 2007.
  • Walden Woods–the home turf of Henry David Thoreau–protected by TPL and the Walden Woods Project in 1990. (This interview about the project with Eagles lead singer and preservationist Don Henley is worth a read.)
  • Raspberry Farm, in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, protected by TPL in cooperation with the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance last year

There are lots of other projects profiled here–representing work by conservation and preservation groups nationwide. 

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As Earth Day turns 40

April 21, 2010

On this big birthday for Earth Day, I commend to you Peter Fimrite’s flash review of the environmental movement in 1,394 words that appeared in last Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle. Fimrite places Earth Day in historical context, from the 19th-century roots of the conservation movement to our uncertainty in a time of economic anemia, political gridlock, and a looming climate crisis.

The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, was, by all accounts, the beginning of a powerful grassroots movement, helped immeasurably by a famous TV commercial that premiered on Earth Day 1971 of an Indian shedding a tear as he saw pollution all around him.

Today, being green is routine in many people’s lives, but some of the environmental problems from 40 years ago still exist. The difference, according to conservationists, is that environmental issues are woven into the social, economic and political fabric of the country.

Fimrite’s piece is a great review of the topic for those of us who remember the 1970s — and a great introduction to it for those who have come along since.

One of the things to be thankful for as Earth Day enters middle age is that our president and his administration put conservation front and center last week by convening the America’s Great Outdoors conference. If you haven’t watched President Obama’s speech at the conference, it is only 11 minutes and well worth a look–especially to hear him say that, unlike Teddy Roosevelt, he will probably never kill a bear.

Those of us at TPL–the land-for-people people–were particularly gratified to have the president, in his remarks, endorse community-based recreation and conservation and highlight the importance of connecting people to nature where they live: “We want to foster a new generation of community and urban parks so that children across America have the chance to experience places like Millennium Park in my own Chicago.”

Later in the conference, Newark Mayor Corey Booker held up his city’s partnership with TPL as an example of how urban parks can be created and revitalized to bring outdoor recreation to city residents. Since 1995, TPL has worked with the city and donors to create nine new Newark parks and playgrounds.

Finally, I can’t help but point out the coincidence of Earth Day, 2010, with the eruption of that unpronounceable Icelandic volcano that brought air traffic to a halt over Northern Europe earlier this week. It never hurts to keep in mind that our technologies are feeble in the face of natural forces. Mother Nature can do some damage when she gets mad–we better learn how to live in her good graces.

(For those who do not recognize the above image, it is a screen capture from “The Crying Indian,” produced by the Ad Council and Keep America Beautiful and first aired on Earth Day 1971.  You can see the whole of this iconic ad here.)

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Recession helps and hinders Rhode Island conservation

January 19, 2010

A piece in yesterday’s Providence Business News opens with an example of what has come to be called the “green lining” in the recession for conservation groups — and then quickly tags it as the exception and not the rule. 

While the Aquidneck Land Trust paid  “about half of the asking price in good times”  for a conservation easement that blocked construction of 127 homes, elsewhere in the Ocean State, the conservation news is less rosy.  Key factors: less funding and landowners rebellion against lower appraisals in the down market.

Kevin Essington, of The Nature Conservancy’s Rhode Island chapter, said the local nonprofit acquired 300 acres last year, the smallest amount in at least a decade. He attributed that largely to skittish landowners unhappy with appraisal results.

“The conservation community is probably the only potential buyer right now and we are finding [transfers] of land have dropped quite a bit … but it hasn’t yet translated into cheaper deals or more deals” for the Nature Conservancy, said Essington, director of government relations and communications.

Unlike developers, land trusts and conservation groups can dip into financing available only to them and can also offer easements that allow property owners to keep their land but limits development.

Still, land trusts are also struggling with slashed budgets, falling donations and competition from developers looking to snap up cheap land.

The State’s Department of Environmental Management coordinates state conservation programs and administers open-space bond funds, which will run out soon. 

While a dearth of funds could prove a problem in the future . . .  it was not a lack of money in 2009 that stopped DEM from purchasing lots of land. Instead, it was unwillingness by landowners to sell at appraised prices they thought far below value and developers wondering whether to sell now or take a gamble and hold their land.

The department closed on 405 acres in 2009 compared to 3,234 in 2008.

Money is also a problem for several local land trusts whose public funding is tied to local home sales, for example on upscale Block Island. 

Between January and August of last year the Block Island Land Trust brought in $101,024, compared to $565,235 during the same period in 2008. The plunge has left the trust with barely enough money to cover its operating and debt costs and far from considering purchasing land.

More evidence that the recession has changed the conservation outlook for both good and ill.  Read the complete story here.

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Shrinking religious orders take up land conservation

January 8, 2010

Sister of Saint John the Baptist convent, Mendham, NJ - Photo Marni Horwitz

A story carried in several newspapers including the Washington Post  highlights a growing conservation trend.  As their members age and their goals change, religious orders and organizations face hard choices about what to do with their lands and often turn to conservation. 

The piece highlights the Religious Lands Conservancy – a  Massachusetts organization that “has been instrumental in placing hundreds of acres owned by religious communities into conservation” — and Sister Chris Loughlin of the Dominican sisters of Plainville, Mass., an organizer of the conservancy. 

With a faith-based mission to protect the Earth, Loughlin has approached congregations throughout the Northeast to broach the spiritual value of conservation. 

It’s not just a feel-good spiritual mission. During the past 40 years, the number of Catholic nuns has plummeted 66 percent, and the number of Catholic brothers by 60 percent. The financial strain of dwindling membership has resulted in lucrative — and often attractive — offers to sell the orders’ land to developers. 

In the mid-1970s, the sisters in Plainville confronted an increasingly familiar situation: Fewer students were enrolling in their parochial school, and shrinking numbers of sisters meant having to hire (and pay) lay teachers. 

In a scenario faced by many Catholic orders, the cash-strapped sisters began to sell off pieces of property to help pay for the care of elderly members. In similar situations, land that was once eyed for a cemetery was split into subdivisions, and shuttered churches have been converted to condominiums. 

The trend has actually been going on from some time.  A few years ago I went looking for examples of TPL’s work with religious orders and came up with a dozen or so from across the East and Midwest, including projects to protect a baseball field in Chicago,  a Presbyterian church camp in Minnesota, and the last surviving Shaker village.  

Among religious groups that have chosen a conservation solution are the Sisters of Saint John the Baptist in Mendham, New Jersey.  Land around much of their convent, pictured above, is now public watershed, habitat, and recreation land.  

As the Washington Post piece makes clear, while such transactions may in part be propelled by necessity, conservation by religious orders often is motivated by a deeply felt religious purpose. 

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