By Andrew McElwaine
Pennsylvania Governor Mark Schweiker’s proposed 2002-03 budget would make major changes to the state’s fundamental environmental laws and programs. In particular, it would cut nearly in half the award-winning Growing Greener program and the Keystone Recreation, Park, and Conservation Fund. In February, the Governor announced he was indefinitely deferring $50 million of the Growing Greener program’s $100 million appropriation for fiscal year 2001-02; his proposed budget would carve another $50 million out of the appropriation for fiscal year 2002-03. In addition, the budget proposes cutting the Keystone program by 25 percent in 2001-02, and another 50 percent for 2002-03. In total, these cuts would eliminate over $140 million in environmental program funds.
The Keystone Recreation, Park, and Conservation Fund Act, which was signed into law in July, 1993, after being approved 48-0 in the Senate and 196-3 in the House, directed 15 percent of the state’s Real Estate Transfer Tax to the Keystone Fund, establishing a dedicated and permanent funding source for recreation, parks, conservation, and other programming. That November in a referendum, 67 percent of voters endorsed supplementing the newly created fund with $50 million in bond revenues. This makes the Keystone Fund one of the few, if not the only, state program to receive overwhelming support by both legislature and referendum.
The Growing Greener program was signed into law in 1999 with the promise of $650 million over five years for open space and farmland preservation, watershed restoration, acid pollution clean-up, abandoned oil and gas well plugging, and sewer and water system upgrading.
These programs address important needs within the Commonwealth. For instance, Pennsylvania has more rivers and streams than any other coterminous state in the Union. Many of these watersheds are and can be a focal point for viable communities, but about one-third of the assessed streams in the state have poor water quality because of non-point pollution.
Additionally, in its most recent inventory, the Natural Resources Conservation Service ranked Pennsylvania third in the nation in the amount of open land being developed each year—300 acres per day between 1992 and 1997. Land development has fragmented remaining forest and agricultural lands, creating land use conflicts and diminishing the ecological and economic values of isolated forest remnants while diminishing the health of watersheds.
Since its inception, Growing Greener has received over 2,180 applications requesting in excess of $520 million, and has awarded more than 790 grants totaling $86.6 million. There is no doubt this program is a success. Among many other things, projects funded in Growing Greener’s first two and a half years will allow for $125 million in improvements to state forests and parks, the creation or restoration of 4,261 acres of wetlands, and the completion of 188 miles of stream buffer restoration. The program is currently in the midst of at least 404 watershed implementation projects, 184 environmental education projects, and 156 assessment, restoration, and protection plans.
Pennsylvania’s environmental challenges are great, and programs that are meeting these challenges should not be subject to the vagaries of the budget process each and every year. For example, the farmland preservation backlog is long and, therefore, many haven’t even bothered to apply for funding; there are still nearly 2,500 miles of streams impacted by abandoned mine drainage; and community open space is being developed several times faster than it is being conserved.
To provide permanent, stable funding for conservation and the environment, at least three proposals are expected to be considered by the Pennsylvania General Assembly. At this writing, Rep. Kate Harper (R-Montgomery) had introduced HB 2345 to raise the garbage disposal fee in the state by $5 for every ton dumped. Similar proposals are expected by State Sen. Jane Earll (R-Erie) and State Rep. David Levandansky (D-Allegheny).
Individuals who are concerned about environmental funding should follow this debate closely during the spring and summer. The state’s natural heritage and long-term economic health in a 21st century economy are under threat as never before. Only bold action can secure the future of our land, water, and wildlife and ensure a quality future for ourselves and for those who will follow us.
Andrew McElwaine is the president, CEO and director of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) and the co-founder, secretary and treasurer of Enterprising Environmental Solutions, Inc., a non-profit corporation designed to create incentives for private-sector action to improve environmental quality. Prior to PEC, he worked as the director of environment programs at The Heinz Endowments and held numerous governmental appointments and positions. Mr. McElwaine holds an M.S. from Carnegie Mellon University, an M.A. from George Mason University and a B.A. from Duke University.