The Nebraska Environmental Trust’s legacy of important habitat restoration is not at all in doubt. However, its path forward very much is, based on decisions made by its board of directors.
Several recent actions – including appointments to the 14-member board, puzzling grant awards and representation of this large and diverse state, to name a few – have generated controversy and at least one lawsuit, to be heard later this month, filed by former board members and elected officials who helped found the Trust.
And those claims have shed light on an apparent paradigm shift by the organization that is departing from its traditional role of safeguarding and improving Nebraska’s natural treasures.
Created in 1992, the Trust has awarded hundreds of millions of dollars, generated from lottery revenues, as grants to fund conservation projects in all 93 counties. Up until last year, the scoring of grant applications and awarding of millions in grants went off as it had for nearly three decades.
Then came the decision to eschew projects recommended by the trust’s grant committee in favor of providing $1.8 million to a large Nebraska ethanol producer to pay half of the purchase price and expense of buying ethanol pumps and storage tanks and installing them in privately owned retail service stations.
Ethanol’s positive impact on Nebraska’s air quality can’t be discounted, nor can its benefits to Nebraska’s economy be overlooked. But ethanol producers can lobby and raise the money to invest in their own operations in a way Lancaster County’s serene saline wetlands – a project that lost some $900,000 to the ethanol project – cannot.
Justification from board members and Gov. Pete Ricketts aside, the ethanol vote – the subject of the aforementioned lawsuit – indicates a break from tradition.
So, too, does the board’s membership.
With the recent resignation of Sherry Vinton of Whitman, the Environmental Trust board lost both its only female member and its lone representative of western Nebraska. In a state with as diverse landscapes, geography and people as Nebraska, a board composed entirely of white men from the eastern third of the state doesn’t reflect that.
Much of this owes to the sprawling 3rd Congressional District – each of the three districts is allotted three nominees made by the governor and approved by the Legislature – which touches all four corners of the state. But with topography and land use changing as one moves west across Nebraska, voices west of Hastings must also be heard.
In yet another break from tradition, multiple senators on the Natural Resources Committee voted against Ricketts’ appointees – including some reappointments – before their names were forwarded to the full Legislature for confirmation, likely because of these shifts.
Even as the politics around and actions of its board are reoriented, the Environmental Trust’s mission remains unchanged. So, too, should its role of preserving the state’s ecological wonders.