Rachel Kester

KESTER

This spring, I have been watching and waiting for our elected officials in Harrisburg to come to their senses about the fate of Pennsylvania’s most successful conservation programs, the Keystone Fund and Growing Greener.

These two funds have financed a great many local, on-the-ground projects in Clearfield County and across the state. Our communities have benefited from enhancements to our parks and trails, protection of our open spaces, and improvements to water quality in our streams and rivers. I work for Trout Unlimited on water projects here in Clearfield County and in the broader West Branch Susquehanna River region, so those local streams are nearest and dearest to my heart.

For years, my project partners-contractors, engineers, watershed groups, local governments-have come to the conclusion that the Keystone Fund and Growing Greener need more funds to match the scope of our needs. But in Harrisburg, lawmakers are considering proposals that would leave us with less. The proposals would take millions of dollars out of these two programs in order to pay for regular state government operations. That would be a mistake.

Since the inception of the Growing Greener program, the state has awarded millions of dollars in clean water funding to local watershed groups, county conservation districts, and other organizations.

Together, we are cleaning up abandoned mine drainage (AMD), the legacy of historical mining practices before the onset of environmental protections. We are reducing sediment and nutrient pollution by working with the agriculture industry to farm smarter, and working with road crews to improve dirt and gravel roads. We are stabilizing eroding stream banks, planting trees, and improving fish and wildlife habitat right here in Clearfield County.

But even with these investments, we still have a long way to go to restore our damaged streams. AMD is the greatest source of water pollution in Clearfield County, with over 600 miles of streams officially “impaired,” according to the Department of Environmental Protection. Without dedicated funding to tackle the backlog of projects that are needed to restore our streams, the counties in the coal regions of our great state will remain at an economic disadvantage.

Clean water is our greatest resource, and watershed restoration projects provide a great return on investment.

A study commissioned by TU looked at the economic benefits of cleaning up AMD in the West Branch Susquehanna River watershed. It showed that for every dollar invested, $1.36 to $1.87 is generated in the local economy. Growing Greener awarded $947,493 to the Clearfield County Conservation District this year, which will fund a new system to treat AMD on Morgan Run. This will generate an additional $1.29 million to $1.77 million. And this is only one project of many!

I have seen firsthand that these projects create local jobs. We are able to put local folks to work, particularly those with mining knowledge and experience, and it is a great thing to see former coal miners putting their skills to work restoring our lands and waters and improving our quality of life right here in their own communities.

It’s not just a paycheck. It also instills in them a sense of pride that they are able to be part of restoring our lands and waters.

These projects provide jobs for a host of people in our communities, including equipment operators, truck drivers, laborers, material suppliers, engineers, technicians, water testing labs-the list could go on and on as the funds filter through the community to grocery stores, gas stations, day cares, and other local businesses.

Conservation funding should not be diverted to pay for operating costs of our state agencies or conservation districts. It is critically important to support these agencies, but they should continue to be financed by our tax dollars. The Keystone Fund and Growing Greener were established to conserve open space and natural lands, protect and restore our waters, and provide for parks and recreation. They should remain dedicated to those purposes.

I truly believe that we cannot have a strong local economy without investing in our natural resources. Economic growth and a healthy environment can go hand in hand. Our elected officials need to work together to pass a budget that does not jeopardize these important programs.

Rachel Kester lives in Clearfield County and is a Project Coordinator for Trout Unlimited’s PA Coldwater Habitat Program.