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Funding Conservation: Is this the End of a Legacy?

WITF Public Television

 In these tough financial times, state and federal governments are all scrambling to balance their budgets. This has placed environmental and natural resource programs at risk in part because of past decisions to set up special funding streams for our publicly owned resources. Today, dollars that were once dedicated to state and local parks, open space conservation, and recreational infrastructure have been redirected to other uses. What in the past would have been called wise use of funds has now become a tempting target for appropriators and politicians looking for quick solutions to financial shortfalls.

Pennsylvania, my home state, is no exception. Claiming fiscal necessity, recent governors both Democrat and Republican have raided the state’s Oil and Gas Lease Fund, reduced operating support to state parks, and proposed eliminating funding for the Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund.  The Pennsylvania legislature also has used budget maneuvers to redistribute conservation dollars to fund other programs.  In less than five years, over fifty years of conservation minded laws have been tossed aside or threatened with extinction. Conservation and environmental advocates have pushed back against these funding cuts with some success.  However, fiscal projections for continued state revenue shortfalls are still looming on the horizon.  Our contemporary political rhetoric depicts government spending as profligate and popular opinion is running against taxes or anything perceived as taxes. Funding for parks, open space, and conservation projects is painted as a luxury that the people cannot afford or even as a drain on the state coffers.

So are we really mortgaging our children’s future to pay the bill for natural resource conservation? A little Pennsylvania history might be in order to better understand the how conservation funding programs of today originated as a strategy for the thrifty and sustainable management of public resources. There is a way to balance the books in favor of conservation and preserve our rich natural heritage.   It is found in the wisdom of a man who would be 100 years old this month, Maurice K. Goddard.  From 1955 to 1979In an unprecedented bipartisan career, he served five Pennsylvania governors.  Through his good work, he left the Pennsylvania of today with an unparalleled legacy: 2.2 million acres of certified sustainably managed forests, 120 award-winning state parks, and the dedicated funding to help pay for them.

Perhaps it was Maurice Goddard’s training as a forester with its emphasis on sustainable management and multiple uses of public land that that led to one of his most innovative ideas for conservation funding, the Oil and Gas Lease Fund Act.  Prior to 1955, natural gas revenues from drilling on the state’s public forestlands were deposited in the general fund. Goddard gained bipartisan support for legislation to dedicate these rents and royalties to his department to be used solely “for conservation, recreation, dams, or flood control.”  It was a great success. In the Goddard era and for years afterwards, almost all of the money was used to fund his vision of a state park within 25 miles of every Pennsylvanian and a professionally managed system of state forests.  Goddard had found a way to pay for conservation by investing the money generated by the depletion of one natural resource and in enhancing the value of another.

Goddard’s idea of using revenue from activities that deplete or have an impact on non-renewable natural resources to reinvest in conservation infrastructure has had far-reaching policy impacts. He was well known on the national scene having chaired a committee at the 1965 White House Conference on Natural Beauty.  His concept of capturing revenue in the Pennsylvania’s Oil and Gas Lease fund is widely credited as the model for the federal government’s Land and Water Conservation Fund. First passed in 1964, the act was later amended in 1971 to dedicate revenues from off shore oil drilling to open space conservation and recreational purposes.

Parks, open space, conservation, preservation and resource stewardship are not politically loaded concepts, unless we let them become so. Their value – in dollars, in health, in beauty and in history – cuts across all political and social lines.  Maurice Goddard showed us how our state government – without additional taxes, without taking from Peter to pay Paul, and without rancor, can effectively promote economy and environment.

So tomorrow, as we commemorate Maurice Goddard’s one-hundredth birthday, let’s learn from the lessons of history and rededicate these dollars to their intended purpose.  If our elected officials across the nation will take a bold step and pick up the torch of conservation leadership, they too may be honored and celebrated by future generations.

An edited version of this article appeared as the lead editorial in the Sunday Harrisburg Patriot September 9, 2012. http://www.pennlive.com/editorials/index.ssf/2012/09/maurice_goddard_the_godfather.html

For more information on Maurice Goddard and the upcoming commemoration of his conservation legacy see: http://www.paparksandforests.org/goddard.html