This article was published on: 03/9/11 12:00 AM
Wildlife groups balk at lottery fund pact
By Nick Budnick / The Bulletin
Published: March 08. 2011 4:00AM PST
SALEM — Discussions over a voter- approved law that uses lottery money for parks and natural areas have local conservation groups concerned.
In November, voters approved Measure 76 by a margin of 69 percent to 31 percent. In Deschutes County, the margin was nearly as resounding, with 68.4 percent in favor. The law essentially extended an earlier measure that allocated 15 percent of lottery funds to parks and wildlife habitat. The law has led park officials from other states to look at Oregon’s well-funded system with envy.
While parks remain popular in Oregon, the margin of victory last November was due to an agreement struck last summer among interest groups and lawmakers to avoid an opposition campaign. Under the deal, major conservation groups supporting Measure 76 agreed to support a follow-up measure backed by the Oregon Education Association.
As discussed, the follow-up measure would set a sunset date at which the lottery funding law would expire, as well as let the Legislature divert funds to nonwildlife causes in times of economic emergency. But the new proposed law has sparked controversy and hardball politics.
Now that lawmakers have written a bill to implement that agreement, The Nature Conservancy has balked at supporting it, saying it did not realize the implications of the agreement.
Specifically, the group says the fix-it measure contemplated by lawmakers, called House Joint Resolution 29, doesn’t keep enough money flowing to groups for habitat restoration. Among other things, HJR 29 would let the state keep about $8.5 million to cover the costs of implementing the new law.
The position has sparked tough talk in the Willamette Valley. If The Nature Conservancy doesn’t get on board with the agreement, the Oregon Education Association is prepared to pursue a new ballot measure that could divert more lottery funding away from natural areas to schools.
“We are concerned that it appears that they are reneging on the promise that they made to voters, to the Legislature, and to those of us who originally had some concerns with the measure,” said Becca Uherbelau, spokeswoman for the OEA.
The possibility of Measure 76 exploding politically has groups such as the Deschutes River Conservancy and Upper Deschutes Watershed Council worried.
Since 1999, the Deschutes Conservancy has collected more than $10 million in lottery-funded grants from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board for use in Central Oregon, according to the state. That figure is second only to The Nature Conservancy, which collected more than $15 million for projects all over the state.
“At this stage, we don’t and won’t get involved in all those backroom negotiations and deal making,” said Tod Heisler, executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy. Asked about the talk that a follow-up measure could take all the parks and wildlife funding, he said.
“Of course it concerns me. My hope is that calmer minds will prevail and that the right negotiation will occur that frankly protects the will of the voters on Measure 76.”
Heisler said the funds have gone into projects that make a difference for Central Oregonians, including restoration of in-stream flows to Whychuss Creek and the Deschutes River by piping canals to conserve water.
“It’s been incredibly important environmentally and for your irrigators, and municipalities and local jobs,” he said.
The Upper Deschutes Watershed Council has worked with Deschutes River Conservancy on a lot of grant projects.
The council’s executive director, Ryan Houston, said that if the lottery money disappears, about 60 percent of the project funding the council has received would, too — including money used to help with city parks. But he said his group doesn’t know enough to take a position.
“Quite honestly, it’s something we here on this side of the mountains don’t fully understand, all the politics that are going on,” he said.
One group, the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, has publicly renounced The Nature Conservancy’s position, saying that as far as OLCV is concerned, the bill being pushed by lawmakers meets the terms agreed upon by OLCV, The Nature Conservancy and lawmakers last summer.
Jon Isaacs, OLCV executive director, said he’s disappointed both in The Nature Conservancy’s renouncing of the agreement and in the OEA’s willingness to use the threat of a ballot measure to enforce that same agreement.
“I’ve been in probably four meetings where it’s been put on the table,” he said. “At this point, if they don’t (follow through on their threat), their credibility is on the line in terms of putting it out there as the next steps they’ll take.”
He called the disagreement a destructive one. “In my view, this is what the antigovernment forces out there want: They want those of us who believe in government … to fight among ourselves over limited resources. … It’s potentially really destructive for the conservation community.”
Stephen Anderson, an Oregon spokesman for The Nature Conservancy, declined to comment on whether a recent statement issued to the Willamette Week newspaper meant that his group was backing away from its earlier position opposing HJR 29.
“We’ve always indicated that we would have some flexibility, and that’s why we’re talking to the legislative leadership now to work that out.”
Rep. Ben Cannon, D-Portland, is one of the sponsors of HJR 29, and is part of small group of lawmakers that continues to negotiate with The Nature Conservancy. He said he hopes that the group returns to staying within “the framework of the agreement,” from last summer, because “I think they have at some points begun to stray outside of it.”
Lawmakers will meet to discuss the issue later this week. HJR 29 is expected to lead to a measure on the November ballot that tweaks Measure 76, though its details have not yet been finalized.
Nick Budnick can be reached at 503-566-2839 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published Daily in Bend Oregon by Western Communications, Inc. © 2010