Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Politicians’ raids on state land conservation fund a disgrace

Lower Howard's Creek after a snowfall in January 2015. The 348-acre nature and heritage preserve was made possible by the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund.
Lower Howard's Creek after a snowfall in January 2015. The 348-acre nature and heritage preserve was made possible by the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund.

When I am stressed by life’s frustrations, such as the dysfunctional nature of Kentucky politics, there is no better refreshment than a walk in the woods. One of my favorite places to go is the Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve.

Like many of the creeks that flow to the Kentucky River through a unique ecosystem called the Palisades, Lower Howard’s Creek is a natural wonderland of rare plants, wildlife, cliffs, waterfalls and the stone remnants of pioneer structures.

This well-managed preserve offers guided hikes throughout the year and a public trail open every day that starts beside Hall’s on the River restaurant., a 30-minute drive from downtown Lexington.

Clark County Fiscal Court created this preserve 15 years ago with money from the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund, a part of the state Energy and Environment Cabinet.

Since then, fund grants have been used to buy additional land, fight invasive plant species, and conduct natural resource and archaeological surveys. That investment has been leveraged with other grants, private donations and volunteers to build trails, restore pioneer buildings and fences, improve water quality and provide environmental education.

Lower Howard’s Creek now has 348 acres, with another 98 acres under contract. It has become a popular recreation area and an important piece of Kentucky’s growing outdoor recreation and tourism industry.

But were it not for the conservation fund, it “would be a tiny little preserve in a sea of privately held agricultural property being rapidly gobbled up for development,” said Clare Sipple, the preserve’s part-time manager.

Since its creation in 1994, the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund has worked with local partners to conserve 88,000 acres of ecologically or historically significant property at 130 sites in 67 counties.

In addition to Lower Howard’s Creek, the fund’s many success stories include doubling the size of Lexington’s popular Raven Run Nature Sanctuary and enabling 1,246 acres to be added to Blanton Forest State Nature Preserve in Harlan County.

Money for the conservation fund comes from state fines for environmental law violations, the state portion of the un-mined minerals tax and $10 contributions from citizens who want the state “nature” license plate for their vehicle.

Or, at least that was the deal until former Gov. Steve Beshear and state legislators started robbing the conservation fund — a practice Gov. Matt Bevin wants to not only continue, but increase.

In the last biennium, Beshear and lawmakers “swept” $8 million from the conservation fund to make up for budget shortfalls elsewhere. Bevin’s proposed budget for the coming biennium would increase that raid to $10 million.

Conservation advocates from 40 organizations throughout the state plan to gather Wednesday in Frankfort to lobby legislators against Bevin’s proposal, which would essentially wipe out the fund at a time when Kentucky already spends less on land conservation than most neighboring states.

“We understand the state faces severe fiscal pressures,” said David Phemister, state director of The Nature Conservancy. “But this is the only state funding source for land conservation in Kentucky. This fund didn’t cause the problems — and eliminating it won’t solve them.”

Phemister noted that natural areas not only are important public amenities, but they contribute to the tourism and outdoor recreation economy, creating hundreds of jobs and economic opportunities in often hard-hit small towns and rural areas.

“As Kentucky’s communities vie for new industries and residents, quality of life issues become more and more important as recruiting tools,” Sipple noted.

Rather than spending millions on economic development incentives and tax breaks, she said, “It would seem logical to allow the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund to use it's relatively small funding sources to provide opportunities in every county, managed by local people who are already invested in their communities.”

Conservationists make excellent arguments for the conservation fund’s economic value. But I would add a few more points to this discussion:

Kentucky’s natural landscape is a place of rare beauty, though its abundance is rapidly diminishing. Using land and natural resources wisely, and preserving special places to be enjoyed by present and future generations, is the very essence of conservation, a word closely related to another word Kentucky politicians seem to love: conservative.

Misappropriating money from the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund violates the intent of the 1990 law that created it. Even worse, taking voluntary contributions that license-plate buyers entrusted to the state for land conservation is no better than theft, and it only increases public cynicism of politicians. Stop it. Now.