Monday, October 25, 2021

Guest Essay: Communities Should Invest Federal American Rescue Plan Funds In Conservation

By Andy Loza, Executive Director,

This guest essay originally appeared in the Sunbury Daily Item on October 24, 2021--

The [federal] American Rescue Plan (ARP) has provided Pennsylvania counties, cities, boroughs, and townships with $6.15 billion in federal funding, with half disbursed among nearly every state municipality this summer and the second half following next year.
This funding offers an unprecedented opportunity for local government leaders to invest in community projects that improve Pennsylvanians’ lives.

Localities have wide latitude in how they disburse ARP funds. But does this flexibility apply to land conservation, waterway restoration, and recreation projects? 

To find out, WeConservePA, a charitable conservation organization, sought analysis from attorneys experienced with local government and regulatory issues. 

As the legal analysis confirmed, many conservation-related projects — investments in parks and other public outdoor recreation spaces, natural infrastructure to prevent pollution and manage stormwater, and land and easement acquisitions in support of these efforts — are among the eligible expenses.  [Read more here]

These allowable investments could improve Pennsylvania communities for years, decades, and — in some cases — even centuries. 

Rather than providing a temporary good, most conservation-related investments deliver enduring public benefits. 

For instance, when land is purchased for a park, trail, or other public open space, that land will be available to the public in perpetuity, and when land is conserved to absorb stormwater and filter pollutants from developed areas that would otherwise runoff into streams, the flood reduction and water-pollution-prevention benefits are permanent.

Likewise, planting forest buffers along streams to prevent flooding and pollution, restoring the natural flow of waterways, and planting trees in urbanized areas will improve lives for generations. 

These benefits, moreover, increase with time. Trees grow, provide shade, and absorb pollution; long-absent fish and wildlife return to improved habitats.

Though new and rehabilitated park infrastructure and trails degrade with public use and extreme weather, they nevertheless provide years of community enjoyment before needing substantial reinvestment. 

Like other conservation projects, they deliver economic returns far greater than the monies invested in them. This holds true even when maintenance costs are factored into the analysis.

Conservation investments have always been a good deal for local governments because of the high level of economic (including enhanced tax revenue), social, and environmental benefits returned to communities. 

Now that ARP has provided the money, the case for making these investments is even stronger.

Indeed, ARP funding of trails, parks, and conserved open spaces will make communities more attractive. 

Parks and open spaces provide low or no-cost recreation, reduce health costs by encouraging exercise, lessen air pollution, and absorb stormwater. 

Homebuyers prefer homes close to opportunities for outdoor recreation and greenery. 

Moreover, houses built near trails, parks, and other conservation areas sell for appreciably more than those farther away — a benefit both for homeowners and for a municipality’s tax coffers.

The public use of parks, preserves, and trails has significantly increased since the COVID-19 crisis. Now, higher levels of use appear to be the new norm. 

This has inevitably accelerated wear and tear among Pennsylvania’s 6,100 local parks and 12,000 miles of trails. Municipalities can utilize ARP funds to address the increased maintenance and rebuilding needs.

Local government officials enjoy the enthusiastic support of Pennsylvania voters — Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike — to invest in parks and other natural infrastructure. 

Polling from last fall found that--

-- 87 percent of likely voters agree that even with (what was then) a tight budget, localities should still invest in protecting land, water, and wildlife; 

-- 90 percent agree that protecting water quality and land in Pennsylvania is critical to keeping the state’s economy strong; and 

-- 91 percent agree that it is more important than ever to have parks, preserves, and other public spaces where residents can safely enjoy the outdoors.

Further, 93 percent of Pennsylvanian voters agree — 68% strongly — that “we have a moral obligation to take care of our environment.” 

Whether the focus is protecting waterways, wildlife, natural areas, or productive farms, an overwhelming majority of Pennsylvanians find these matters to be “very important.”

ARP funds offer municipalities a unique opportunity to boost investments in projects that Pennsylvanians overwhelmingly support. These conservation initiatives can begin now and will continue to deliver value for decades to come. 

From nature-based solutions that prevent flooding and stream degradation to parks and trails for recreation, ARP dollars will make a tremendous difference in Pennsylvania’s communities.

Andy Loza is the executive director of WeConservePA, a Pennsylvania nonprofit that helps people care for, wisely use, and enjoy what nature offers.

Related Articles:

-- Going, Going, Gone... Senate, House Have Little Time To Act On Funding For Local Flood Prevention, Watershed Restoration, Recreation Projects 

-- The Future Of Pennsylvania’s Parks and Forests Is in Our Hands; New Online StoryMap Describes Critical State Park, Forest Funding Needs

-- Growing Greener Coalition: American Rescue Plan For Water & Green Infrastructure

-- DCNR Secretary: American Rescue Fund Dollars One Option To Address $1 Billion State Parks, Forests Maintenance Project Backlog, Paying Back Oil & Gas Fund

-- 90 percent Of Voters Want MORE Funding For Critical Environmental, Conservation Programs & Local Projects-- Whose Budget Proposal Does That?

-- New Poll: 86% Say Parks, Trails, Outdoors Are Essential To Their Physical, Mental Health During Pandemic; State Parks Saw 26.6% Increase In Visitors

-- Green Infrastructure Offers Triple Benefits, Cost Effective Solutions To Stormwater Pollution, Reducing Flood Damage

[Posted: October 25, 2021]  PA Environment Digest

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