Some Lawmakers Skeptical of $10M for Conservation Grants

By ERIK SCHELZIG | Associated Press Writer

NASHVILLE (AP) - Some lawmakers are expressing concern about approving another cash infusion for the state's Heritage Conservation Trust Fund amid tight budget conditions.

The trust fund created by Gov. Phil Bredesen is designed to conserve natural areas in the state. Bredesen, a Democrat, has asked lawmakers to approve $10 million in grant money for the program in the upcoming budget year.

But Sen. Diane Black on Tuesday asked Environment and Conservation Commissioner Jim Fyke at which point the state will have spent enough money on the program.

"Year after year we hear that we need another $10 million and another $10 million," said Black, R-Gallatin. "My question is when do these $10 millions stop?"

"We are in a year where our dollars are so tight we have to make some decisions about our priorities, and I'd like to find out more about what our long-term plan is," she said.

Fyke responded that the state will have given enough grants when applications stop coming in.

The trust last year awarded 14 grants worth $17 million that are projected to protect about 22,000 acres.

Sen. John Wilder, D-Mason and a longtime critic of conservation programs, questioned what benefits the state derives from the grants.

"I don't agree that we should buy property in this fashion, I don't think it's state business," Wilder said. "I think we need it for parks and other things, but to buy woodlands - and not use it - is just not state business."

Fyke responded that about 90 percent of the trust's grants aren't used to buy land for the state, but rather to secure conservation easements.

"The state gets conservation," said Fyke. "The state guarantees that those sites will not be developed."

Projects eligible for grants include preservation of tracts for tourism and recreation, or to protect or restore physical, cultural, archaeological and environmental resources.

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