Thursday, June 11, 2020, may be a day that will live in infamy for Nebraskans who support conserving, enhancing and restoring the natural, physical and biological environment in our state.
On that date, the 14-member board of the Nebraska Environmental Trust voted to deep-six the recommendations of its own grants committee and award $1.8 million of State Lottery money to a project helping rural gas stations replace their ethanol blender pumps.
The action jumped in priority and defunded projects for restoration of rare saline wetlands near Lincoln, marsh restoration projects by Ducks Unlimited, and financing a conservation easement to maintain wild sheep habitat and protect a wild trout stream.
It’s questionable whether the funded ethanol project even qualified for consideration by the Trust Board. At least three of the listed criteria for project eligibility seem to have been ignored:
* The project must have clear and direct environmental benefits.
* The funds requested shall not pay for private benefits or provide assistance to projects whose benefits are primarily private in nature.
* The funds requested shall not pay for projects which have direct beneficiaries who could afford the costs of the benefits without experiencing serious financial hardship.
Trust funding categories are the following: habitat, surface and groundwater, waste management, air quality, and soil management.
Proponents at the June 11 hearing argued that new E-15 pumps to be funded by trust dollars would enhance air quality but forgot to mention that encouraging farmers to plant corn fence row to fence row to supply ethanol plants sometimes results in draining wetlands and damaging other fragile ecosystems.
Ethanol production does create a market for farmers — nothing wrong with that — but if they want financial assistance, economic development subsidies are available for both farmers and gas stations. So they shouldn’t be turning to the Environmental Trust.
Two of the Trust Board’s actions were particularly interesting:
* There was near unanimous, but not official, indication that any future application for funding would not be approved if it contains any form of conservation easement.
* The board passed a resolution saying they did nothing wrong by violating their own internal processes to approve money for the gas stations rather than fund true environmental enhancement projects.
A conservation easement is a voluntary agreement between a landowner and another party that limits the amount and type of development that can occur on a property to preserve its natural character.
The Trust Board currently seems to be composed of individuals who want to ensure environmental groups are unable to take agricultural land out of production. Many projects submitted for funding from the trust use the dollars to obtain these easements. Not anymore, apparently. Some on the board said they were in the business of “conserving” not “preserving.”
All in all, the public hearing and board action June 11 resulted in a serious blow to future environmental initiatives that have been so vital to the state. Since 1992 when the Legislature created the trust; and the people — by a 62% majority — voted to create the Nebraska Lottery to fund the trust, more than $300 million has gone to more than 2,000 worthwhile environmental projects.
The Trust Board is composed of nine members appointed by the governor and five state agency heads. All Nebraskans should be concerned about the future direction of this important government entity. Let them hear from you: Environmentaltrust.nebraska.gov.
Randy Moody is a retired lawyer and lobbyist who helped create the Nebraska Environmental Trust as a lobbyist for a nonprofit conservation organization. He was campaign manager for Friends of Education and Environment, which provided primary support for the ballot issue creating the Nebraska Lottery.
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