After banner year, conservation efforts continue

Carrying out Governor Patrick's commitment to preserve open spaces and improve public parks on an unprecedented scale, the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) and its agencies took action to permanently protect 24,104acres of land - the equivalent of 66 acres per day - in fiscal year 2008.

In August 2007, Governor Patrick made a historic commitment to land preservation, pledging at least $50 million annually - a 65 percent increase over yearly land protection spending during the previous four years, and 24 percent over spending each year from 1993 to 2003, adjusted for inflation. Primary funding for state land conservation programs comes from the $1.7 billion Energy and Environment Bond Bill passed by the Legislature and signed by Governor Patrick in August 2008.

"The distinctive character of Massachusetts comes as much from what we preserve as from what we build," Governor Patrick said at the time of signing.

Full details of these statewide conservation achievements are available in the 2008 Land Protection Report.

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In 2008, the state expended $54.9 million on 223 conservation projects that protected 13,819acres though a combination of grants, fee purchase, and conservation and agricultural preservation restrictions. Under programs administered directly by EEA, 2,008 acres in 60 communities were protected. The Department of Fish and Game protected 6,198 acres of fish and wildlife habitat in 41 communities. Department of Conservation and Recreation efforts added 3,321 acres to the State Forest system in 28 communities. The Department of Agricultural Resources protected 1,530 acres in 18 communities. The Department of Environmental Protection protected 214 acres to safeguard drinking water supplies in six communities.

An additional 10,285 acres were preserved through 248 approved conservation restrictions approved by EEA Secretary Ian Bowles, the greatest number approved since the conservation restriction program began in 1967. A conservation restriction is a legally binding agreement between a landowner and a public agency or private land trust, whereby the owner agrees to limit the use of his or her property in order to protect certain conservation values - a voluntary program that relies on the generosity and conservation-mindedness of landowners and the efforts of municipal and nonprofit partners to permanently protect open space at no cost to the state.

"Protecting farms, parks and natural habitats is a gift for future generations," Secretary Bowles said. "Our multi-agency, public-private conservation efforts ensure that residents and tourists will enjoy open spaces from the shorelines of Cape Cod to the forests of the Berkshires for years to come."

State-funded land conservation programs leverage significant additional investment in land protection by private land trusts and municipalities. In FY 2008, the Commonwealth's investment of $54.9 million was matched by $32.2 million from landowners, nonprofit organizations, municipalities, and federal sources.

Beginning in 2011, a conservation tax credit recently passed by the Legislature and signed by the Governor will provide a greater incentive for landowners to donate EEA-qualified conservation land to the state, a municipality, or a nonprofit conservation organization. Capped at $2 million a year overall, the state income tax credit is valued at 50 percent of the appraised fair market value of the land, up to $50,000 per gift, not to exceed the donor's annual state income tax liability, though it may be carried forward for 10 consecutive years.

State funding for land programs in FY 2008 include $49.5 million in bond funding, $1.4 million in fees generated from hunting licenses and $4 million from ratepayer funds generated by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority for water quality protection.

Project highlights include a 2,300 acre conservation restriction in the Westfield Watershed in Montgomery and Westfield and 548 acres conserved to protect the Quabbin and Wachusett Reservoirs in central Massachusetts .

State land grants also supported creation of 16 new urban parks, including a 2.5 mile riverside walking path in Haverhill . The programs also supported conservation of agriculture land by protecting 1,530 acres on 26 farms, including the 165-acre Echodale Farm in Easthampton .

Administration efforts to secure vital habitats resulted in the protection of 6,692 acres in 10 targeted habitat reserves. In one project, Massachusetts and Connecticut collaborated to protect 450 acres of grassland habitat, straddling both states, for rare species such as the grasshopper sparrow.

Projects also include 50 acres of the Great Marsh in Salisbury that adds to hundreds of acres recently protected on the state's largest salt marsh with state funds and federal grants. On Cape Cod, three towns are protecting critical habitats with LAND and Conservation Partnership grants, including the last parcel needed to protect the entire shoreline of Dennis Pond in Yarmouth , a sensitive habitat area.

FY 2009 EEA land conservation efforts are off to a flying start with $7.4 million in Parkland Acquisitions and Renovations for Communities (PARC) grants [ ], $396,500 in Conservation Partnership grants [ ], and $3.5 million in Local Acquisitions for Natural Diversity (LAND) awarded thus far [ see related press release]. Stay tuned for additional significant land protection announcements.