by David Phemister, Kentucky State Director
Governor Matt Bevin’s proposed budget, currently under consideration at the General Assembly as House Bill 303, would transfer $10 million from the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund to the General Fund. Governor Bevin states these transfers are necessary to help address other financial shortfalls, most notably unfunded pension obligations to teachers and other state employees, although at present it is not clear exactly where the diverted funds will end up.
Governor Bevin’s proposal is not a new idea. Governor Beshear and General Assembly diverted $8 million from the fund in the previous biannual budget. Nor are these transfers unique to the Heritage Land Conservation Fund. In fact, numerous other funds established to fulfill a variety of public purposes were emptied in the previous budget and stand to be diverted again.
Why does this matter? The Heritage Land Conservation Fund provides the state’s only investment in the conservation of our natural lands and waters. From bottomlands of Obion Creek Wildlife Management Area in Hickman, Carlisle and Fulton counties, to the old-growth forests of Blanton Forest State Nature Preserve in Harlan County, and nearly 130 sites in between, the Heritage Land Conservation Fund has protected nearly 90,000 acres in Kentucky.
These are not just scenic dots on a map. These lands help clean our air and protect our water; improve our health and quality of life; serve as the foundation for a growing outdoor recreation economy that generates over $550 million in state and local tax revenue and over 100,000 jobs; and support Kentucky traditions such as hunting, fishing, hiking and birdwatching.
The Heritage Land Conservation Fund conserves not just our past but also protects an absolutely essential component of a growing and vibrant Kentucky – healthy lands, waters and people. It is no wonder that poll after poll confirm the overwhelming and bipartisan support among voters for increased public funding for the protection of critical natural areas, working forests and farms, recreational lands and wildlife management areas.
Like Governor Beshear before him, Governor Bevin faces criticism for his proposed budget. Before I add my own, it bears acknowledging that the fiscal issues facing Kentucky are significant, and they do matter to all of us. My mother worked over 25 years as a guidance counselor in public schools. Her pension, while modest, provides important retirement security. And it is not a bonus or luxury, but rather simply the state making good on the promise it made those many years ago.
But I also have two children who long to grow up in a world with healthy and intact forests, grasslands, rivers, and streams. While the Amazon rainforest may capture their imagination, the places that help shape their character and most influence their mental and physical health are right here in Kentucky. And surely, clean air and water and places to hike, swim, and fish are not a bonus or luxury to any of our children, but rather society ensuring that we all have these essential foundations for a healthy and happy life.
So, yes, this is a time for hard choices. But that means making the right choices is all the more important. I urge all Kentuckians to send a message or call their legislators at 800-372-7181 and ask them to make the right choice, invest in Kentucky’s future, and protect the Heritage Land Conservation Fund.