Renew state’s green program

As an advocate for parks, recreation and conservation in our community, I would encourage Erie County to join other counties, cities, boroughs and townships, as well as myriad park, recreation and conservation agencies to support the renewing of Pennsylvania’s Growing Greener program.

The initial Growing Greener program, a bipartisan environmental initiative, was signed into law by Gov. Tom Ridge on Dec. 15, 1999. The statewide program provides matching funds to communities to help restore and protect local watersheds, clean up abandoned mines, preserve and acquire farmlands and open spaces, and lessen nonpoint pollution from entering our important potable water supplies.

Growing Greener also provides funds for maintaining our national award-winning state park system, as well as the development of close-to-home multipurpose trails and parks.

Along with economic benefits, the Growing Greener program has been Erie County’s most effective tool to help our communities protect, restore and enhance our environment. Erie County has received more than $4 million from funding and more than $17 million when including match money from other sources. These funds have helped to preserve more than 1,000 acres of open space from development.

In all, the Growing Greener program has protected more acres than any other state program in the nation, with nearly half a million acres preserved. The program has also helped restore many miles of local streams and funded numerous close-to-home park and trail development and rehabilitation projects.

Together with local contributions, the Growing Greener program has leveraged more than $2 billion into our state and local economy. In the case of the Growing Greener program, there is no need to issue a bond, borrow or divert scarce general fund dollars into the program. Funding for the program was scheduled to stay in place through 2012, to be provided through the state’s Environmental Stewardship Fund, which comes from a $4-per-ton waste disposal fee for companies that dump trash in our landfills.

Another source of funding for the program that is being considered is some type of natural gas drilling impact fee. One proposal has a third of the revenue from these new fees going to the Growing Greener program, a third to the state’s general fund, and a third to local governments dealing with the impact from natural gas drilling.

I believe that making those who affect our environment the most — most notably the drillers and dumpers — pay into the Environmental Stewardship Fund is the right thing to do. The drillers are profiting from our state’s natural resources and they should compensate the taxpayers and affected communities by paying the same kind of fee they pay in other states. Pennsylvania is still the only major gas-producing state without a tax or impact fee on natural gas drilling. In fact, a recent poll shows a majority wants a tax on the drillers.

There is no doubt that our national, state, county and local governments are facing a financial crisis and cuts need to be made to balance budgets and restore fiscal discipline. However, cutting environmental improvement programs is not the answer. Cutting them only creates an ever-increasing backlog of environmental problems that will continue to affect the very health and quality of life in our communities.

Pennsylvania’s rich natural resources — our mountains, forests, fields, farmland, lakes, rivers and streams — support our economy, create healthy communities and provide low-cost, close-to-home recreation for our families, which in turn improve our overall quality of life.

We should reach out to our local, county and state legislators and encourage them to do the right thing for the environment in which we all live. They need to provide full and dedicated funding for the Growing Greener and Green Futures Funds.

Tom Fuhrman | president of the Lake Erie Region Conservancy