State betrays citizens’ trust on conservation

Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve, a success story for the state conservation fund, is a popular place for hiking. It is only a 30-minute drive from downtown Lexington.
Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve, a success story for the state conservation fund, is a popular place for hiking. It is only a 30-minute drive from downtown Lexington. teblen@herald-leader.com

I was extremely disappointed to read in Tom Eblen’s column of government’s misappropriation of the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund. It is a travesty that $8 million was taken by government during the past several years to help make up for the budget shortfall. And under the new administration’s proposed budget, an even higher amount, $10 million, almost the fund’s entirety, is to be taken.

Eblen’s insightful column should serve as a call to action for all Kentucky citizens.

Understandably Kentucky has faced a very difficult balancing act, with the most significant budget challenges in decades. As pointed out in the article, however, the 1990 law that created the KHLC Fund was clearly intended to provide funds for preserving Kentucky’s natural landscapes and places of historical heritage for perpetuity.

The concept of public-space preservation has been ingrained in America for generations. Thankfully, Kentucky’s visionaries for over a century understood the importance of setting aside at least some public spaces for the common use and enjoyment of its citizens, as towns and development increasingly encroached upon exceptional places of historical interest and scenic beauty.

These lands improve our health and quality of life. They also contribute significantly to the tourism economy through outdoor recreation pursuits such as hunting, fishing, hiking and bird watching.

Many state agencies have accessed these funds over the years, including the Division of Forestry, Kentucky State Nature Preserve, The Kentucky Wild Rivers Program, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife and Kentucky State Parks. The process in seeking funds is extensive, as agencies must prepare well-researched proposals that are vetted by a board.

When I was commissioner of state parks from 2008 to 2011, the agency successfully applied for funds to purchase several important tracts of land that we otherwise would not have been able to.

At historic Perryville Battlefield we worked diligently to save and secure land buffering the battlefield. At many Civil War battlefields in the country where lands had not been protected, we sadly now have development encroaching upon these hallowed grounds.

We also were able to purchase Sportsman’s Hill in Lincoln County, adjoining The William Whitley Historic Site, one of the places where horse racing began in Kentucky. It now has trails and interpretive kiosks identifying its significance.

John James Audubon was one of our country’s first ornithologists and a leading artist, who lived and painted in Henderson for many years. Land adjoining Audubon State Park was recently purchased, protecting wetlands for migrating birds, but more importantly serving as a habitat for heron and eagle rookeries. These are but a few examples of how just one agency was able to continue to protect our state’s rich heritage for future generations.

As noted in Eblen’s column, a significant portion of the KHLC funds are derived from “nature” license plates. It is unconscionable that government would betray our citizens’ trust by essentially raiding these designated funds. We should expect and demand that the fund be administered as the law intended.

Perhaps my greatest concern with government overreach in this manner, is what happens next. I am deeply concerned that the principles, good sense and logic of preservation and conservation that guided us so well in the past may now be eroded and lead to further exploitation of these wonderful places for potential oil, mineral and building development in order to balance the budget.

Regrettably the next new nature license plate may have Cumberland Falls with a “$” sign superimposed on it.

Gerry van der Meer of Nicholasville is a former Kentucky parks commissioner.

At issue: March 2 Herald-Leader column by Tom Eblen, “Politicians’ raids on state land conservation fund a disgrace”

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