Finding the Way When Politics Change

Mao Zedong may not have actually said that "Everything under heaven is in utter chaos - The situation is excellent", but that quotation certainly comes to mind today.  The funding environment for land protection at the federal level just got a lot more uncertain, with Kremlin watching  now the name of the game in Washington.  The incoming Trump administration has signaled its intention to shake up many federal agencies, including those with direct bearing on our conservation work, and thus far appears disinterested in promoting environmentally-friendly policies. The lame duck session of Congress adjourned without acting to permanently re-authorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, though this vital resource was previously extended until September 30, 2018.  Closer to home, several of our states are in fiscal straights - Connecticut first and foremost - with little funding available for land protection and environmental agencies that are understaffed and under-resourced. 

The situation may not be "excellent" for the conservation sector, but there are opportunities available to us even in a hostile political climate, and Regional Conservation Partnerships are in a good position to take advantage of many of them.

1)  Fill the Gaps -   RCPS are well suited to building a pipeline of projects that maximize available public sources of funding, and even add capacity to state agencies to ensure that federal grants are secured and deployed where needed in a timely fashion.   In Connecticut, The Litchfield Hills Greenprint Collaborative (RCP) provides technical/GIS support to the CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection for its annual application for, and implementation of, federal Highlands Conservation Act funding in our region.  We also identify qualified projects that can use these federal funds to match other state, municipal and/or privately raised resources and help move them to completion.  Over time, we have helped direct over $5 million in federal funding from this one source for projects within our RCP that are regional conservation priorities.  

2) Broaden Eligibility for Available Funding - Connecticut's Department of Agriculture can utilize federal funds to match its own resources to purchase conservation easements, but only if those properties meet the federal requirement of 50% or more of the easement area in designated farmland soils.  "Local important farmland soils" also qualify, but these are recognized by the NRCS on a town-by-town basis in Connecticut, and only after the top elected official in that community expressly requests that such soils be identified.   The process itself is quick and its impact on increasing project eligibility can be dramatic, but the decentralized nature of the application process leaves many towns with limited access to available federal funding.   The answer can be for RCPs to take the initiative, engaging with individual communities through their members, while also using regional planning agencies (Connecticut's councils of governments) as a way to get the message out to many communities at once.  Several Greenprint members have taken the lead in our RCP's effort in Northwest Connecticut, and we anticipate the majority of towns in our region will have their local important farmland soils designated by early in 2017.

3) Make the Case That Works for the Opportunities You Have - Biodiversity and climate change resilience are worthy conservation values, but they are not the reason why most people support protecting open space.  Even though our conservation priorities at the regional level may consist of large forests, critical habitats, significant wildlife corridors and the like, we will need to adapt our message to build the public support needed to fund their conservation.  Land protection has to be relevant to communities and to voters to become a budgetary priority.  In southern New England, protecting land to support local food production, provide public access and enhanced recreational opportunities, and possibly in combination with flood mitigation and transportation upgrades, holds the greatest promise for attracting public dollars.  Except for working lands, the days of paying public money to private landowners for easements that do not provide public access are probably gone for the foreseeable future.

4) Give Regionally-Minded Conservation Philanthropy a Chance - There are some people, even in the more economically challenged regions covered by RCPS, who have the ability to support regional conservation priorities without diminishing their support for local land protection efforts.  Quite often, these donors are interested in making a difference at scale.  The Litchfield Hills Greenprint Collaborative has cultivated a small but growing number of subscribers to what we have called the Greenprint Partners Pledge Fund.  They agree to review land protection opportunities developed by our RCP and to make contributions up to $250,000 during a three year period to support one or more projects of regional significance.  They may do so anonymously through the RCP's sponsoring organization, and the amount they give does not exceed 25% of the total transaction cost.   To date, we have attracted $400,000 in contributions for two of our member's projects, resulting 444 acres conserved and $1,200,000 in leveraged funding from other public and private sources.

5) Plan Ahead -  Land Protection is a long game.   You can always lay the groundwork for opportunities you do not have yet.  Make the case for the large vision even if you need to focus on smaller parts of it for a while.  If you cannot connect forests yet, connect trails and talk about the importance of connectivity.  If you cannot raise the public funding it takes to save a special place that is critical to your strategic vision, make it a priority for every member to achieve and a clear win for everyone when it happens.  Take a risk and ask whether there might be a donor in one community willing to support a project in another.  See whether those priorities that do get public funding - transportation and job creating projects, for example - can incorporate conservation objectives into their design and implementation.   If a culvert gets replaced to accommodate flood projections but also removes barriers to fish passage and expands riparian buffer protection, the conservation benefits can be substantial.  If you or your partners are not at the table, it won't happen.

6)  Be the Connection - Choose your metaphor - an RCP can and should be a hub, a conduit, a broker of information.  We function to amplify and enhance the conservation work of our members in a regional context.  We can identify opportunities, broaden networks, present valuable information where it can do the most good.  If we want our collaborations to thrive, though, that won't be enough.  We need to make innovation and excellence a hallmark of our partnerships.  It is not about buy-in; it is about joint problem solving.  We need to get really good at that.  If we do, then we will be much better able to adapt to the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

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