Trust: $3M destined for area conservation

Spending bills passed by Congress and signed by the President last week included $3 million in federal funds to advance open space preservation across the Schuylkill Highlands area of southeastern Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the multi-state Highlands Region, said a press release from Natural Lands Trust (NLT),  a regional land conservation organization.

“The Schuylkill Highlands has been recognized by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, local governments, and private conservation organizations as one of the state’s natural gems,” said Molly Morrison, NLT's president. “We are thrilled that Congress and the President have chosen to invest in the protection of this vital resource.”

The Schuylkill Highlands lies at the confluence of the federally designated Highlands—a landscape that covers nearly two million acres in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut—and the Schuylkill River Watershed. The Schuylkill Highlands includes portions of Montgomery, Berks, Bucks, Chester, Lancaster, and Lebanon Counties and is home to the Hopewell Big Woods, the Schuylkill River Trail, Valley Forge National Park, Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, and the Schuylkill River National and State Heritage Area.

The $3 million approved this week as part of the federal Highlands Conservation Act will be used for conservation projects in the Highlands. A significant portion of the funding will be distributed through the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) to support open space purchases in the DCNR-designated Schuylkill Highlands landscape.

The Schuylkill Highlands is a source of clean drinking water for more than one-and-a-half million people, including the City of Philadelphia. It also holds nearly one thousand acres of national recognized wetlands, two state-designated Scenic Rivers, five Audubon-designated Important Bird Areas, and habitats that support federally endangered and threatened species like the bald eagle and the bog turtle, the release said.

“The funding provided will help to preserve the Schuylkill Highlands, ensuring that it continues to be a vital natural, cultural, and recreational resource,” Morrison said in the release. “Conserving the Schuylkill Highlands is a smart investment in the health and prosperity of the region’s communities.”

Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegates have been strong supporters of the Highlands Conservation Act. Legislation in Congress to extend the Highlands Conservation Act through 2024 (H.R.712 – Frelinghuysen) has been co-sponsored by Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-PA6); Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA7), Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-PA8), Rep. Charles Dent (R-PA15), and Rep. Matthew Cartwright (D-PA17).

Though legislation to reauthorize the Highlands Conservation Act was not passed by Congress this year, conservation organizations in the region will be working to secure its passage in 2015.

To date, Congress has appropriated $17.25 million to the Highlands Conservation Act, which has brought, on average, $2 in matching funds from non-federal sources for every $1 in federal investment. The program only purchases lands from willing sellers and requires that the Commonwealth or a non-profit partner manage lands protected as open space in perpetuity, the release said.

For more information on Natural Lands Trust, visit www.natlands.org.

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