Op-ed: Protecting public land grows urgent

March 4, 2016

Op-ed as it appeared in the Republican American

By Christopher S. Murphy and Kevin D. Witkos

Recently, there’s been a healthy debate in Connecticut about how our state must change to meet new demands in today’s economic climate. Persistent budget deficits mean Democrats and Republicans will have to re-examine priorities and make tough budget choices.

But these decisions should not be so shortsighted that they put the essential, long-term character of our state in jeopardy. This would be the case if temporary budget expediency led to the sell-off of public land or the raiding of conservation funds that help preserve our land for future generations.

We are joining to call on state leaders to take extraordinary steps to ensure this will not happen.

No matter where you live, in a small state, parks, rivers and beaches are just short trips away. We can spend Saturday mornings hiking in Tunxis State Forest, Sunday afternoons kayaking down the Farmington River, and lazy summer weekends enjoying protected habitats along the shoreline. Without a strong commitment to protecting open space, however, we risk overcrowding and development sprawl that makes public services much more expensive for everyone.

Luckily, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has set a bold goal of preserving 21 percent of Connecticut’s land — that’s 673,210 acres — as open space by 2023. With the help of passionate land-use and environmental advocates in more than 100 lands trusts across the state, we’re well on our way to meeting that goal. But we can’t take our foot off the accelerator pedal now.

In particular, we recommend taking a step that was pioneered in neighboring states like Massachusetts, New York and Maine.

To memorialize our commitment to protecting open space, Connecticut should pass an amendment written by Sen. Witkos to the state constitution that would make it tougher for the state to sell preserved public land for development in the first place, and ensure that any sales that meet this higher standard fund future conservation in the state.

This state effort to protect land would complement the recent conservation-policy victories Sen. Murphy helped engineer in Washington, D.C. The bipartisan federal budget Congress passed late last year makes permanent the conservation-easement tax deduction, an incredibly effective tax incentive that makes it easier and more affordable for families to donate private land for conservation.

The budget also invests in critical preservation funds, like the Land and Water Conservation and the Highlands Conservation Fund, that directly help Connecticut.

Preserving public parks, forests, rivers, lakes and wildlife habitats is a short-term investment with long-term benefits. It’s smart environmental and ecological policy. It’s smart land-management policy. And it saves the state money in the long run.

That’s why it unites a progressive U.S. senator and a conservative state senator, and why neither will stop fighting for it.

U.S. Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., lives in Cheshire. State Sen. Kevin D. Witkos, R-8th District, represents Avon, Barkhamsted, Canton, Colebrook, Granby, Hartland, Harwinton, New Hartford, Norfolk, Simsbury and Torrington. He lives in Canton.