No excuses: Restore funding now to Virginia conservation programs
By Locke Ogens
Ogens is the Virginia state director for The Nature Conservancy.
During the current session of the General Assembly, Virginia citizens from all across our commonwealth have been calling their legislators and asking them to increase funding for land conservation. But instead of heeding these well-reasoned pleas from constituents, on Feb. 18 legislators proposed cutting funding for statewide conservation programs. Official documents indicate that this decision was based on a flawed rationale regarding recent mitigation agreements.
Our legislature is making a terrible miscalculation in trying to substitute these agreements, which the commonwealth negotiated with companies building natural gas pipelines, for statewide conservation funding. The mitigation agreements are intended to provide financial compensation to the state for forests that will be affected by pipeline construction. They are absolutely not a replacement for statewide conservation funding.
Virginians care deeply about our lands and waters because they not only help define who we are culturally, but also enhance our quality of life and our prosperity. Protecting our natural resources — from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay — is so important to our citizens that we enshrined this responsibility in our state constitution.
Article XI of the Constitution of Virginia charges the leaders of our commonwealth to protect our vital natural resources for the benefit of our people. And in recent years, conservation has enjoyed broad bipartisan support in our General Assembly, though funding has been less than predictable.
Virginians are disappointed with how our erratic funding stacks up to our neighbors. Virginia spends about 1 percent of available revenues on natural resources — on average, only half of what other states invest. Because of the pride Virginians take in our scenic landscape and history of national leadership, we are dismayed that our state trails behind the pack instead of leading the way.
Right now, the General Assembly is on the wrong track. The proposed cuts will drastically impede the ability of the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation and the Virginia Outdoors Foundation to carry out their missions on behalf of our people.
The Virginia Land Conservation Foundation provides financial assistance that makes possible the protection of open spaces and parklands, historic sites, farms, forests and natural areas. The Virginia Outdoors Foundation stewards more than 800,000 acres of conservation lands across 107 counties, a portfolio that encompasses some 80 percent of all open-space easement acreage in the state.
Rather than honoring the purpose of pipeline mitigation funds, the General Assembly is mistakenly attempting to use their existence as a justification to cut funding for statewide conservation programs.
Imagine if federal funding for coastal restoration in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy had been used as an excuse to deprive the rest of Virginia of conservation benefits. Yet that is the kind of flawed thinking on which the General Assembly is pinning its current budget rationale.
Is it right to say to a town in Southside or Northern Virginia, where mitigation will not apply, that we can no longer offer matching funds for a local park? Is it right to say to a farmer in Southwest Virginia or on the Eastern Shore that we can no longer offer financial incentives so that you can afford new practices or equipment that will make our waterways cleaner?
If allowed to stand, these cuts would be an abdication of the legislature’s constitutional mandate to protect and restore natural resources that are critical to all Virginians. The mitigation funds can only be used to restore specific forest corridors following direct impacts from pipelines. These funds will not address the urgent conservation needs that exist in every other corner of our commonwealth.
Virginians, now is the time to stand up and speak for the rights of all our citizens to have healthy lands and clean water —both today and for generations to come.
Contact your delegates and senators today and urge them to restore funding for the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation and the Virginia Outdoors Foundation to at least 2017 levels. And let them know that, next year, you want to see Virginia rise from its rank as an also-ran to our rightful place as America’s leader in conservation.