Indiana will dedicate $25 million toward acquiring land for nature preserves, parks and other conservation areas in the state. Officials with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources said that’s the most state money Indiana has ever put toward conservation at one time.
The money comes for the Next Level Conservation Trust from a federal COVID-19 relief package last year. The pandemic has led to crowding at some of the state’s trails and campgrounds — which conservation advocates said shows the need for more natural spaces in the state.
Tom Laycock is the director of land acquisition with the DNR. He said the last time Indiana got significant funding for conservation projects was under Gov. Mitch Daniels — and it was used up in just four years.
“We’re going to move through it very rapidly and that I hope will be just another demonstration that we have pent up demand for conservation projects in the state of Indiana," Laycock said.
Laycock said Indiana lawmakers should consider making conservation funding a permanent part of the budget. The most consistent source of funding comes from Indiana's environmental license plate sales — which only generates about a million dollars a year.
Andrea Huntington is the executive director of the Indiana Land Protection Alliance — which is a network of land trusts in the state. According to the Land Trust Alliance, nearly 159,000 acres are managed by a land trust in Indiana — and Huntington said those trusts are growing.
She said the ILPA is excited to see this important investment from the state and hopes Indiana keeps moving in this direction. Huntington said Indiana does a good job of attracting businesses, but investing in the state’s natural spaces is the way to attract talent.
“It is just so crucial that we are thinking about, you know, nature and protected spaces and outdoor recreation — because we need to be making that a priority," Huntington said.
Huntington said some other Midwest states like Wisconsin have sustainable sources of funding that go to not only their Departments of Natural Resources, but also to land trusts and local parks departments.
Laycock said the DNR hopes to prioritize acquiring new land for conservation projects rather than funding for existing ones.
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Even so, it could still help nonprofits looking to bolster those existing programs. John Ketzenberger is director of government relations for The Nature Conservancy in Indiana.
“It will also increase our ability to work with our own budget going forward because it will extend that as well. By using some of these state funds, we’ll be able to reserve some of our own private donor funds that we use for these programs," he said.
Ketzenberger said, though the funding from the license plate sales is small, it's still been very helpful in the state's conservation efforts. He said this new funding will likely show Indiana lawmakers that more conservation dollars can be used cost-effectively in important ares of the state that need protection.
"I think that that the legislature will find that they'll get a lot of bang for that $25 million," Ketzenberger said.
Laycock said the public can get involved by contacting their local land trusts and parks departments.
Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.