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Outdoors enthusiasts urge saving conservation funds

A coalition of conservationists, hunters and other outdoors interests called on legislators Wednesday to retain funding for land and water preservation, which would be substantially cut under Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed budget.

Land for Tomorrow announced a list of specific conservation funds it wants to protect at a news conference, and then spread out to visit lawmakers with what it said was more than 150 advocates.

The group wants to see the Clean Water Management Trust Fund funded at $20 million a year. The governor’s budget cuts it to $6.75 million and only funded for only one year. The fund reached a low of $10 million in the current budget, after being cut from a high of $100 million over several years amid the bad economy.

They’re also asking to preserve dedicated funding for the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund (cut to $15.5 million from $27.5 million in the governor’s budget) and the Natural Heritage Trust Fund (cut to $4.2 million from $9.9 million). McCrory proposes leaving those funds to legislative funding year to year, rather than a reliable stream of funding.

The coalition wants to see the Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund funded at $2 million a year. And it opposes a pending bill that would do away with the conservation tax credit, which costs about $17 million a year, and is responsible for about 230,000 acres conserved at a value of $1.3 billion in donated land.

“Unfortunately, the budget that Gov. McCrory released last week just slashes land conservation,” said The Nature Conservancy’s Debbie Crane.

She said before the state set aside money for planning and development, “Park funding essential became pork-barrel funding.” Building parks and swinging deals with landowners willing to donate large acreage to the state requires the certainty of longrange financial commitment, Crane said.

Tim Gestwicki, CEO of the N.C. Wildlife Federation, called McCrory’s budget disappointing, saying conservation only amounted to 0.13 percent of the budget.

He said licensed hunters and anglers contribute $3.3 billion to the state’s economy, and all outdoor recreation provides $19 billion in consumer spending in North Carolina.

“It’s time to put ‘conservative’ back in the conservative party,” Gestwicki said.

Land for Tomorrow is comprised of conservation, agriculture, wildlife, hunting, fishing, business and local government interests.

Rep. Ruth Samuelson of Charlotte, who is part of the GOP leadership in the House, was supposed to attend the news conference but couldn't make it. Afterward, she said that McCrory's elimination of the Clean Water Management Trust Fund was the only part of his budget she disagreed with. She said it should be restored at the same level it is now for the next two years.

She said the fund provides important protection, and is a way to leverage money for the state's benefit.

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