Reauthorize the Highlands Conservation Act Now!

Tim Abbott serves as the Housatonic Valley Association’s Regional Land Conservation and Greenprint Director. Below you will find Tim Abbott’s Letter to the Editor – originally published in the Lakeville Journal. To date, Highlands funding has been instrumental in achieving Follow the Forest’s goal for the next decade of protecting 50,000 acres of land and 50% of each core forest with a secure linkage connecting each one.

The Highlands Conservation Act is the most significant and reliable source of federal land protection funding in our region.  It represents a model of public / private partnership, saving more than 3,800 acres in Northwest Connecticut to date and leveraging Congress’s investment with more than 2:1 in matching state, municipal and private contributions. The Highlands Conservation Act is revitalizing local economies while also promoting conservation, tourism, wildlife, and recreation.

The vast majority of Highlands transactions in Connecticut have helped our local land trusts protect special places in our communities by matching Open Space Watershed and Land Acquisition (OSWA) grants from the state with Highlands funded easements. These include conservation lands in Canaan/Falls Village, Cornwall, Goshen, Kent, , Norfolk, Salisbury, Sharon, Sherman, Simsbury, Torrington, Warren, Washington and Winchester.

Two bills that will reauthorize and enhance the Highlands Conservation Act are working their way through the House and Senate and enjoy bipartisan support.  Senator Chris Murphy is the sponsor of S753 – The Highlands Conservation Act Reauthorization Bill – which has been reported favorably out of Committee.   It awaits similar action in the House on Representative Sean Patrick Maloney’s companion legislation H.R. 2793 so it can come to a floor vote. It is vital that it move forward, because in addition to reauthorizing the Highlands Conservation Act, these bills will:

  • Increase the annual appropriation for the HCA from $10 million to $20 million;
  • Provide a mechanism for Highlands states (PA / NJ / NY and CT) to petition the USFWS to change (expand) the Highlands boundary.   In Connecticut, this could mean extending HCA eligibility to the rest of Litchfield County and additional parts of New Haven and Fairfield Counties.  In New York, this could mean adding more Highlands communities in the Ten Mile River Valley, which currently only includes Pawling and Beacon;
  • Allows updates to Highlands Study and associated maps using best available data from the Highlands States rather than requiring a new Forest Service updated study.
  • Allows states like New Jersey that have laws in conflict with the federal appraisal standards to petition for an alternate appraisal method that would comply with state law.
  • Provide the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service its state agency partners with appropriate funding to help efficiently administer grants and get more land protected.

We need Congress to act to bring the Highlands Conservation Act Reauthorization Act to a vote so that this highly effective and valuable program can continue to serve the conservation needs of our region. I am grateful to Senator Murphy for his leadership and Richard Blumenthal for his co-sponsorship of S. 753.  I am likewise inspired by Representative Larson, Courtney, Himes and Hayes of Connecticut’s House delegation, all of whom have cosponsored H.R. 2793. Let’s get this done!

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