Stable Funding Sources Elude Several State Land Conservancies
Money problems for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy earlier this year have highlighted a need among most of the state's six land conservancies to find a long-term funding source to carry out their mission of acquiring, restoring and preserving open space.
The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which acquires land throughout Los Angeles County and in southeastern Ventura County, announced it had run out of money to even pay administrative costs as of June 30. A state Assembly budget subcommittee in March voted to give the conservancy $750,000 to cover those costs for the next fiscal year, with a requirement that the conservancy identify long-term funding sources.
"Budgets (for conservancies) dramatically declined during the past decade," said Rachel Dinno, director of government affairs for the Planning and Conservation League. "We hope for change with the new governor."
Dinno and others said to watch for the May revisions of the state budget, after tax receipts are in. At that time, Gov. Davis' priorities — as well as the state's financial picture — will be clearer.
Some conservancies — such as the Coastal Conservancy — benefited from flush state coffers last year and received one time funding increases. However, the Coastal, Santa Monica Mountains, Coachella Valley Mountains and San Joaquin River conservancies lack consistent funding. The Tahoe Conservancy and the Wildlife Conservation Board both have more stable funding bases.
The heads of the state's conservancies are now hoping that a state parks bond measure gets on the ballot in March 2000. Four competing parks bond proposals are currently before the state Legislature, with each containing millions of dollars for the conservancies. Belinda Faustinos, chief deputy executive director of the Santa Monica conservancy, said the agency hopes to receive about $60 million under any bond measure that passes.
Additionally, a water bond measure sponsored by Sen. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, may contain millions for some of the conservancies.
The Coastal Conservancy hopes for $100 million to $200 million in parks bond funding, said Bruce Ahern, executive officer of the agency. The smaller Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy hopes to get between $2.5 million and $5 million from bonds.
California voters last approved a parks bond measure in 1988. A 1992 parks bond measure went down to defeat during the state's recession. A few conservancies receive funding from Proposition 117, a mountain lion protection initiative passed in 1990.
During hard times, conservancies have turned to a variety of funding sources. The Tahoe Conservancy receives $5 million a year from the sale of special state license plates featuring Lake Tahoe. A non-profit affiliate of the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy sponsors funding raising for an "adopt an acre" program, which has raised $100,000.
Bill Havert, executive director of the Coachella conservancy, said the agency has been able to acquire 1,600 acres through purchases and donations, and another 1,200 through conservation easements. Under legislation introduced this session by state Senator David Kelley, R-Idyllwild, the conservancy's mission and boundaries would be expanded to encompass a larger 1.25 million-acre, multi-species planning area across the Coachella Valley that is now being studied for a habitat conservation plan. However, the legislation does not provide the Coachella conservancy more money.
Some conservancies have also been able to draw national attention to their particular region and gain additional funding. The Tahoe Conservancy, for example, was highlighted by President Clinton's 1997 Tahoe Summit, which included a $908 million, 10-year plan to restore the lake. The state is putting up more than $200 million. The conservancy will receive about $20 million a year during that period, with money going towards land acquisition and restoration costs.
"Compared to other folks, we might be doing OK," said Executive Officer Dennis Machida. But, he warned, "There's still an issue of long-term funding. It's not just a conservancy issue, it's in front of all resource protection and management agencies."
The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has acquired more than 40,000 acres since 1980, said Faustinos. In the past four years, it has acquired 18,753 acres through donations and 6,300 acres through purchases. Environmentalists have sometimes criticized the group for cutting deals with developers whose projects require viewshed preservation or wildlife corridors.
The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy was hit hard when money from Los Angeles County bond measures, which had provided millions each year, was expended.
In contrast to hard times at the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, the Coastal Conservancy has benefited from a flush state economy. In the current year, the Coastal Conservancy received $33 million from the state, up from $8 million it received annually during the early 1990s. But the conservancy identified $400 million to $500 million in coastal restoration and preservation projects, Ahern said.
Regardless of whether a parks bond gets on the ballot, the Planning and Conservation League is backing a state measure that would give a 50% tax credit to landowners who donate open space, farmland and critical habitat lands to the state. The group has been pushing the measure for at least five years (See CP&DR, March 1995). SB 680, sponsored by Sen. Jack O'Connell, D-Santa Barbara, passed the state Senate unanimously last year, but stalled because of the Assembly's budget battles. Earlier versions of the bill had a $200 million cap on the tax credit. Now, Dinno said, the bill would allow the legislature to set a specific cap each year.
Dinno expects the measure to lead to increased land donations. Federal tax law already allows property owners to write off up to 35% of a land donation to the state, and by adding the 50% deduction, Dinno said, property owners could write off 85% of a property's fair market value.
One conservancy that has a solid funding source is run by a director who insists it is not really a conservancy. The Wildlife Conservation Board acquires land for the state Department of Fish and Game. It has one of the most stable funding sources, but Executive Director John Schmidt refuses to call the organization a conservancy.
The board receives $21 million a year from Proposition 117 funds, which it uses to acquire habitat for mountain lions and deer. Another $750,000 in administrative costs are funded through revenues from horse racing.
Dennis Machida, Tahoe Conservancy (530) 542-5580
Bill Ahern, Coastal Conservancy (510) 286-1015
Rachel Dinno, Planning and Conservation League (916) 444-8726
John Schmidt, Wildlife Conservation Board (916) 445-8448
Belinda Faustinos, Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (323) 221-8900
Bill Havert, Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy (760) 776-5026