Gov. Chris Sununu says he'd support a budget increase for a popular state conservation fund. It’s the latest turn in a running debate on the issue with state lawmakers.
The Land and Community Heritage Conservation Program, or LCHIP, uses county document registry fees to give matching grants to local land trusts, towns and nonprofits for conservation projects. It’s awarded $37 million in the past 20 years to protect and restore unique ecosystems, natural resources and historic sites across the state.
New Hampshire Nature Conservancy director Mark Zankel gave one example in the works right now: a 1,400-acre conservation project on Surry Mountain outside Keene. Zankel said his group got $400,000 from LCHIP for that project, which will cost $3.5 million total and protect drinking water as well as sensitive wildlife and habitats.
"Right now, there's not enough money coming into the LCHIP fund to come anywhere close to meeting the need out there across New Hampshire," Zankel said. Last year, the fund could only meet half the $7 million in requests it received.
Zankel said conservation has historically been a bipartisan issue in New Hampshire. But Democratic lawmakers and Sununu disagree on how to solve the problem.
The governor wanted to set up a voluntary donation system for the fund. Last month, the Senate killed a bill that would have done that, saying it wouldn’t be reliable enough as a revenue source.
Senate leaders – and nonprofits like the Nature Conservancy, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and others – want to increase the registry fee that supports LCHIP. Sununu vetoed that plan last year and still opposes it, calling it a tax increase.
Now the governor says he'd be open to giving LCHIP at least an extra $500,000 in the next two-year state budget.
Zankel said that number may need work, and it’s not a permanent solution, but, "it might offer a fresh start to a needed conversation."
"It will help to address the need during the next biennium, and that’s better than not getting some additional resources,” Zankel said. “But it does not solve the long-term need that I think everyone agrees on, which is: LCHIP is a great program, and it needs more funding to meet the demonstrated needs out there in communities."
Planning for the 2022-23 state budget starts next year, after the next gubernatorial election.