March 14, 2012 —
The transfer of more than $38 million from the Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund to the General Fund, as proposed by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett for the 2012-13 state budget, is not expected to be a one-time event.
Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) Secretary Richard Allan has confirmed that the measure is proposed to be permanent.
Calling it the largest conservation funding cut in Pennsylvania history, the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association (PALTA) said the proposal would eliminate the only state funds dedicated to land trust conservation work, stop most municipal and county park expansions and improvements, stall trail projects and halt infrastructure rehabilitation in state parks and forests.
According to PALTA, the fund has never been completely zeroed out before and represents a loss of $30 million for conservation in 2012-13.
The Keystone Fund was established in 1993 with an overwhelmingly approved voter referendum, a 48-0 vote in the PA Senate and a 196-3 vote in the House. In 2011-12, it supported $9.5 million in community parks and recreation projects, $3.8 million in land trust projects and $11.4 million in state park and forest projects. Due to high demand, 99 projects totaling $21.3 million went unfunded last year.
For 19 years, the fund has helped conserve 120,000 acres of green space for parks and wildlife habitat; supported 2600 municipal and county park projects including playgrounds, athletic fields, picnic pavilions and pools; funded 850 state, county and local trail projects and improved recreational facilities in PA State Parks and State Forest.
Allan noted that the reduction in funding will require DCNR to put off maintenance projects and reduce grant funding. The transfer will require the agency to identify other sources to support its operations, such as the Oil and Gas Fund, the Environmental Stewardship Fund and revenue generated from the new drilling impact fee.
DCNR anticipates receiving approximately $56 million in FY 2012-13 in drilling royalties. Allan said another 50 to 100 new Marcellus wells should come into production on state forestland during the coming year, but lower natural gas prices may result in a decrease in revenues.
In response to the proposed cut, Greg Belcamino, president of the Delaware Highlands Conservancy (DHC), a land trust that partners with the landowners and communities of the Upper Delaware River region to conserve land and water, expressed grave concern.
“Zeroing out the Keystone Fund that has supported sound conservation priorities for almost two decades is not only shortsighted, it is unhealthy for Pennsylvanians and for the future of our state,” he wrote. “Our region’s local economies, unique beauty and environmental health rely upon assuring that state government wisely uses taxpayer funds to assure taxpayer priorities like healthy public parks, forestlands, thriving wildlife and clean water are protected.”
PALTA executive director Andy Loza is urging the public to contact elected officials to protect the fund in upcoming budget negotiations. Loza stressed that the fund is an economic generator that supports state and local parks and conservation investments that boost jobs and property values.
According to a newly published study from DCNR, in 2010, PA state parks hosted 37.9 million visitors who spent $859 million, bringing $201 million of spending by out-of-state residents to PA communities. Visitor spending resulted in $1.145 billion in sales, $397.8 million in salary income and 12,630 jobs.
The Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) also criticized the cut, noting that over the past nine years, approximately $1.8 billion has been diverted or eliminated from environmental programs.
Funding dedicated to environmental programs has disproportionately been a target in budget dealings, PEC asserts. “The citizens of the Commonwealth have repeatedly affirmed their desire to see environmental program funding protected. It is time for the Governor and General Assembly to honor their commitment and responsibility—required by Pennsylvania’s Constitution—to fully protect our natural and built environment.”
PALTA has launched a website (ConservationAdvocate.org) to provide resources for taking action. It also developed the KeystoneFund.org website a few years ago, which includes a searchable list of projects. Visit www.riverreporter.com  to see more photos of the local impact.