Recently I found myself snowbound in a Louisville hotel. The extent of my outdoor adventuring on these days consisted of strolls along the freshly snow-covered city streets. A city of asphalt and concrete had been softened and renewed by a fluffy, white blanket.
Later, as I stared over the mighty Ohio River from my hotel room, my thoughts wandered to the vast array of Kentucky landscapes that drain into this major tributary of the Mississippi. I thought about how many special places in virtually all of these landscapes have been protected with funding by the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund — either solely or by partnering with other local, state or federal programs or some of the numerous private conservation organizations like The Nature Conservancy, Kentucky Natural Lands Trust, Bernheim Forest Foundation or 21st Century Parks. In many cases KHLCF funds are the only source of state funding available for such critical work.
The nearly 130 sites in 67 counties protected solely or in part by KHLCF over the past 20 years provide our citizens with opportunities for hiking, wildlife viewing, hunting, fishing and paddling, and some protect a number of the most critically endangered plants and animals in the commonwealth. From the developing Pine Mountain Trail (Kentucky's version of the Appalachian Trail) to the rivers, forests and wetlands of our state, all of these sites supported by KHLCF add to the quality of life enjoyed by Kentuckians.
However, the threats to unprotected resources and sites continue to grow while funding for the state's primary source of conservation dollars continues to decline. The most significant decline occurred as a result of the legislature last year passing the governor's budget slashing $8 million from restricted (non-general fund) KHLCF funds over two fiscal years with no promise of recouping these funds.
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To add insult to injury, Kentucky already trails virtually every other neighboring state in its commitment to conservation funding. These cuts occurred in spite of the fact that a 2013 study funded by The Trust for Public Land and Conserve Kentucky concluded that 82 percent of Kentuckians think conservation funding should either stay the same or be increased. This same study showed that for every $1 of KHLCF funds invested over $8 in economic benefit is returned to the commonwealth. That should be welcome news to the 77 percent of voters in the study who believe we can have a clean environment and a strong economy at the same time.
A few years ago I attended the Kentucky Authors Forum when well-known conservationist, Jeff Corwin, interviewed respected natural science author, Richard Ellis, regarding his book. On Thin Ice was a commentary on the status and future security of the polar bear. Near the end of the interview, Corwin asked Ellis how he really felt about the chance that the polar bear would escape extinction. Ellis responded that he had little hope for the polar bear because "not enough people care."
It is obvious that Kentuckians care about conservation. So perhaps the real question is what are our legislators and governor's office willing to do about it?
Just as the recent snow left a fresh, new impression of downtown Louisville streets, perhaps we need a fresh, new commitment to conservation funding in Kentucky. As we continue to focus on growing our economy, here's hoping our government leaders will also welcome the chance to work with Kentucky's conservation community, both private and public, before the next session to address the serious issue of conservation funding (or lack of) in our state.