A sigh of relief for EPF

Governor Andrew Cuomo gave New York’s environment a sorely needed boost yesterday by preserving the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF) in his 2011-2012 budget. This important policy decision hopefully marks a turning point for this longstanding source of conservation funding, which was all but gutted in several rounds of severe budget cuts by David Paterson’s administration.

The proposed budget Cuomo laid out funds EPF (a program originally founded by his father, Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1993) at $134 million. This is the  same level as last fiscal year, and these resources will support New York’s parks and conservation programs. It dedicates money – as it has done historically – to a diverse range of environmental projects, including land preservation purchases, farmland protection, clean water initiatives, and waterfront revitalization efforts.

It’s no secret that conservation programs are often the first casualties of economic downturns, usually – as has been the case under the last three administrations in New York – by officials raiding these funds to fill other budget gaps. It was accentuated under Governor Paterson, who completely eviscerated the fund by slashing it a whopping 40 percent. Things got so bad for the EPF and the state’s environmental agency that it was unable to keep vital programs alive – all because there was no one to fill out paper work for federal grants.

NRDC is especially pleased to see $5 million directed to ocean conservation, an issue that we’ve been heavily focused on in recent years. That money could be used for critical programs that didn’t survive Paterson’s chopping block – including Cornell’s whale monitoring study – or ongoing, still-funded efforts to reduce “bycatch” in New York fisheries, a practice that significantly adds to plummeting fish populations.

By promising not to raid EPF further, Cuomo is preserving the program’s integrity and showing his commitment to putting New Yorkers’ quality of first. To be sure, there’s still room for improvement – the EPF was funded at $222 million for fiscal year 2009-2010, and New York’s environmental advocates will be pushing hard to restore it to that minimum level.

But for now, the Governor’s actions yesterday will throw a lifeline to New York’s struggling conservation projects and help protect the state’s rich natural legacy for future generations.