Preserving Pennsylvania’s Natural Heritage

Lessons from Other States' Efforts to Fund Open Space Protection

Pennsylvania has a rich natural heritage. Our Commonwealth is the home of rugged mountain forests, worldclass agricultural land, beautiful rivers and streams, and countless places of history and natural wonder. But much of Pennsylvania’s natural heritage is in peril—threatened by sprawling development, the Commonwealth’s legacy of mining and industrial pollution, and other challenges.


PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center

Pennsylvania has a rich natural heritage. Our Commonwealth is the home of rugged mountain forests, worldclass agricultural land, beautiful rivers and streams, and countless places of history and natural wonder. But much of Pennsylvania’s natural heritage is in peril–threatened by sprawling development, the Commonwealth’s legacy of mining and industrial pollution, and other challenges.

In recent years, Pennsylvanians have responded to these challenges by investing in the preservation of threatened natural areas. Through such programs as the Environmental Stewardship Fund (Growing Greener I), Growing Greener II, and the Keystone Fund, the Commonwealth has succeeded in preserving thousands of acres of farms, river and stream banks, and threatened natural lands.

But sprawling development continues to threaten many of Pennsylvania’s most precious natural lands. And the future of Pennsylvania’s preservation efforts is in doubt. With the Commonwealth’s five-year commitment to the Growing Greener II program ending in 2011-2012, the Commonwealth should plan now for the future of its land preservation efforts. Pennsylvania can learn from the examples of other states that have dealt with land preservation challenges. In this report, the PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center looks at the experiences of preservation programs in 15 states as they have striven for consistent and adequate funding for open space protection. The experiences of those states suggest that future land preservation efforts in Pennsylvania should:Plan for and finance preservation over the long-term.

States in which funding for preservation is subject to the annual state budget process have a more difficult time sustaining consistent and meaningful land preservation efforts. Consistent funding is important because there is often a very short window of opportunity during which threatened open spaces can be protected. The loss of funding at a critical moment could result in important natural areas being lost forever.

The most effective way to ensure longterm stability in funding is to adopt multiyear programs paid for with bonds backed by dedicated revenue streams. States such as Florida and New Jersey, which have established 10-year preservation programs funded through the issuance of bonds, have been able to maintain momentum for their preservation programs without
having those efforts interrupted by funding cuts during periods when state budgets are tight.

Create a dedicated funding stream.

States have created a variety of dedicated funding streams for preservation programs– ranging from real estate taxes to a percentage share of lottery revenue to a designated portion of the state’s general sales taxes. In reality, however, no source of funding is truly “dedicated” forever, and legislators in several states have diverted funding from these sources to fill short-term budget holes. The “dedicated” funding sources that appear least likely to be diverted are those that are dedicated in the state constitution to land preservation or are used to secure revenue bonds. Constitutional provisions that dedicate specific funding sources to preservation programs are difficult to overturn. Issuing revenue bonds secured with a stable source of dedicated funding can make it difficult to divert funding from preservation activities while providing consistent funding for preservation needs over a period of time. In several states, dedicated sources are not the main source of preservation funding, but still play a useful role in helping a state to diversify its funding stream for preservation, minimizing damage in cases where funding from one source temporarily dries up.

Set goals and evaluate progress.

Several states, including Connecticut and North Carolina, have set numerical goals for the amount of land they wish to preserve through their open space protection programs. In addition, North Carolina produces an annual report evaluating progress toward its “million acre” goal and the challenges faced in achieving that target. These numerical goals enable government officials, preservationists and the public to evaluate the success of a state’s preservation efforts, evaluate where those efforts may be falling short, and devise strategies to address those shortcomings. The quality of land protected is as important as the quantity. State programs should focus on protecting lands of high ecological and community value, for example, by prioritizing the protection of contiguous parcels of open space. Washington, Florida and other states have developed systematic criteria by which they prioritize lands to be protected, ensuring that the investment of state funds delivers the maximum benefit for the environment and state residents.

Create funding mechanisms that align with preservation priorities.

Michigan obtains some of its funds for new state land purchases through revenues from logging and other extractive activities on existing taxpayer-owned lands–a mechanism that undermines preservation goals. By contrast, Pennsylvania raises most of its preservation funds from “tipping fees” for garbage disposal and a portion of the state’s real estate sales tax–two funding sources that align well with preservation priorities. Several other states also use real estate taxes to fund preservation efforts, generating more revenue for preservation at times when there is greater pressure to develop land.

Harness local and private-sector resources.

Several states rely on local and private efforts to augment state land purchases as part of their overall land preservation strategies. States such as Georgia are using tax credits to encourage private efforts to preserve land, while states such as Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Wisconsin offer matching grants to spur the purchase of land by local governments and land trusts. Well-designed tax credits and matching grant programs can enable states to protect more land with less state money and maintain momentum toward land preservation even when state budgets are tight.
Combine land purchases with effective land-use planning.

Oregon has achieved great success in preserving natural and agricultural lands through a combination of innovative landuse
planning and purchases of important natural areas. Effective planning can reduce the pressure placed by sprawling development on natural areas and play an important role in the Commonwealth’s overall preservation effort.

Ensure that taxpayers’ lands remain protected.

When taxpayers use their hard-earned dollars to purchase forests, fields and mountain valleys, these lands should be protected for future generations. But in some states, powerful industries have been allowed to trample on publicly-owned open spaces. Lands purchased by taxpayers for preservation should not be opened to logging, mining, drilling or other destructive activities.

Seek public support.

Citizens across the country support land preservation. When preservation funding initiatives make it to the ballot–either at the local or state level–they frequently receive overwhelming support. The adoption of preservation funding referendums makes it less likely that lawmakers will choose to override the will of the voters by diverting funding and it helps nurture the civic constituency needed to maintain a long-term commitment to protecting the Commonwealth’s natural resources.