A major victory for land conservation in the four-state Highlands region was won late last week when the President signed the Fiscal Year 2018 (FY18) Omnibus spending bill, which included both funding and reauthorization for the Highlands Conservation Act (HCA) through 2021.By reauthorizing this program, Congress has committed to supporting important land projects in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut and recognized the national significance of the water, land, and cultural resources of the region.
Originally passed in 2004, the Highlands Conservation Act (P.L. 108-421) authorized Congress to spend up to $10 million annually in federal matching funds on conservation projects and land preservation in the Highlands states. It also authorized $1 million in technical assistance funding to the United States Forest Service. Funding for the HCA has been tied to the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a national conservation funding program with dedicated revenues from offshore oil & gas leasing revenues. The LWCF was funded at $425 million for 2018 in the Omnibus, $25 million higher than previous fiscal years.
The Highlands region is home to significant headwaters and drinking water sources for tens of millions of residents downstream. Authorization for the HCA lapsed in 2014, necessitating a concerted effort to highlight the importance of this funding and the need for its reauthorization.
The Fiscal Year 2018 Omnibus spending bill provides funding for the federal government through September. The bill includes both an allocation of $10 million dollars for the Highlands Conservation Act, as well as the including H.R. 1281 by reference, introduced by Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ). The bill, which had 17 cosponsors from across the Highlands states, reauthorizes the Highlands Conservation Act through 2021.
With a standing authorization for the program, Highlands states can now prioritize conservation projects and submit them in advance of the yearly Federal budget process in order to ensure funding. This authorization is supplemented by the important achievement of the full funding of $10 million for the HCA, allowing for more conservation projects to be completed throughout the region. In previous years, appropriations for the Highlands Conservation Act have been as follows:
- 2007: $2,000,000
- 2008: $1,750,000
- 2009: $1,500,000
- 2010: $4,000,000
- 2012: $5,000,000
- 2015: $3,000,000
- 2016: $10,000,000
- 2017: $10,000,000
- 2018: $10,000,000
To date, the Highlands Conservation Act has conserved more than 6,000 acres of high-priority conservation lands, in partnership with non-profits, as well as state and local governments. These projects include the Oley Hills in Pennsylvania, Sterling Forest in New York, the Musconetcong River Watershed in New Jersey, and Pine Mountain Preserve in Connecticut. To view an interactive map of all conservation projects completed under the Highlands Conservation Act, visit https://pahighlands.org/conservation/federal.
Passage of reauthorization and full funding for the HCA in the 2018 Omnibus is a significant victory for those working for conservation in the Highlands of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. As projects are completed during this term, the importance of this program and the need for its consistent authorization will again be demonstrated, hopefully leading to subsequent reauthorization in 2021.