State will work to preserve land as part of 200th birthday celebration

By Lesley Weidenbener
The Statehouse File

INDIANAPOLIS – The state is looking for conservation ideas and private donations as it implements a new Bicentennial Nature Trust that will be part of a larger effort to celebrate Indiana’s 200th birthday.

Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman announced Tuesday that the state is seeking ideas for a new Bicentennial Nature Trust that will be part of a larger effort to celebrate Indiana's 200th birthday. Photo by Lesley Weidenbener, The Statehouse File.

Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman announced Tuesday that $20 million in state funding will serve as “seed money” for a program meant to preserve thousands of acres of Hoosier forests, wetlands and other property and make some of it available for recreation.

She said the program likely will include land in both urban and rural areas and create a preservation legacy for Gov. Mitch Daniels, who first announced the program in his State of the State address earlier this year.

“This is creating a lot of excitement statewide,” Skillman said. “The state celebrated the first 100 years of statehood by creating the state parks system. We think it’s very appropriate that 100 years later we follow up with this ambitious statewide conservation program that will provide a lasting impact for Hoosiers.”

A new bicentennial commission – co-chaired by Skillman and former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind. – will seek preservation ideas from Hoosiers and Indiana communities and make the final funding decisions. But the Department of Natural Resources will serve as a gatekeeper, reviewing and scoring proposals before forwarding them to the group for consideration.

Skillman said the state can implement the program – which will use funds from the state’s natural resources, environmental management and tourism agencies as well as from private donations and grants – without a change in state law. She said the governor has the authority to implement the program.

But Daniels has less than one year left in his second term and can’t run again. That means Indiana will have a new governor next January.

Barbara Simpson, executive director of the Indiana Wildlife Federation, said that’s a concern, as are future budget problems that could tempt officials to spend money elsewhere.

From left, Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Rob Carter, Nature Conservancy of Indiana Director Mary McConnell, and Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman talk after the state officials announced a new conservation program that is meant to help Indiana celebrate its 200th birthday. By Lesley Weidenbener, The Statehouse File.

But Simpson said she’s confident that the program is a “landmark, legacy decision” that will continue to have support, in part because it’s under the auspices of the state’s bicentennial planning for 2016.

“I think this has tremendous staying power,” Simpson said.

Other land preservation groups also support the program. Christian Freitag, executive director of the Sycamore Land Trust in Bloomington, said Indiana needs to protect the areas that make it special.

“This is an effort that will enable us to do just that,” he said.

Mary McConnell, state director for The Nature Conservancy in Indiana, said the Daniels administration will be remembered for the trust fund.

“It’s really exciting,” McConnell said. “This administration really needs to be commended for the vision to do that.”

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