Legislators, conservationists and concerned citizens gathered in the Statehouse atrium Tuesday for Conservation Day. Made possible through the efforts of the Indiana Conservation Alliance, an organization that works all through the year to raise awareness and protect the environment in Indiana, it is an important day for citizens to learn more about what threatens Indiana's environment.
"Conservation Day is a chance to talk to your legislators," said Angela Hughes, coordinator for INCA, and the organizer of the event. "We hope to inspire Hoosiers that talking to your legislator is vital, especially in these times. We want them to know they can be a part of the process and how the process works."
INCA represents nearly any group, from hunters and fisherman to bird watchers and hikers, with a stake in protecting the state's natural resources. They offered the entire morning, 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., free lunch included, filled with presentations, to draw people and recognition to work being done to protect the environment at the state level.
This year, there were three main items on the agenda, presented by various organizations. The first two asked for funding from the General Assembly, the third for the passage of a bill.
Issue 1: saving land
The first issue dealt with the Indiana Heritage Trust, a program that, since 1992, has been trying to save what's left of Indiana's natural lands.
John Goss, the executive director of the Indiana Wildlife Federation, spoke first on Tuesday morning, urging the General Assembly to remember the importance of securing state funding for the program.
"Only 3 percent of the land in Indiana is in public ownership," said Goss in an interview prior to the event. "Hoosiers have very limited access to private lands for hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation of all forms. The purpose of Heritage Trust is to leverage matching funds for local parks, land trusts and state agencies to help preserve and protect unique natural resource properties statewide and to increase public access to those properties."
In past years, the Indiana Heritage Trust has received as much as $5 million in general funding. This year they requested $4 million.
The Indiana Heritage Trust, according to information released by INCA, has attracted over 100 partners and completed 350 different projects. This is important because the trust uses the funds given to it to attract other investors, meaning the money granted to the spreads to a number of projects. Once the land is secured, it is protected and able to be used by the public.
One particular revenue source for the trust is through the sales of the Indiana environmental license plate. Anyone renewing their license plate may choose the blue "eagle and sun" license plate and contribute to the trust. Incredibly, those simple purchases have added up to over $26 million.
Even with this added revenue, the trust is in a perilous position. This is a particularly crucial time for the trust due specifically to the failing economy. With less money, many landowners are selling their land right now. Goss fears that without proper funding, these lands are in grave danger.
"Dozens of unique properties that protect threatened species can be lost forever due to timing problems. Many willing property sellers cannot wait two to four years for the next budget and will sell on the open market."
Once this happens, companies whose interests lie in other places than conservation may buy and destroy the land.
Issue 2: saving water
The second item on the agenda addresses the request for $1 million in funds for the Clean Water Indiana Program.
CWI was enacted in 1992 for the purpose of protecting lakes, rivers and streams. They hope to achieve this by preventing polluted runoff in urban areas from contaminating freshwater sources both on the surface and underground.
Water issues are becoming more apparent as time passes. CWI address the problem flooding poses to the state's freshwater sources. According to the INCA fact sheet, in June of 2008, 2 million tons of topsoil in floodplains were lost, affecting more than 100,000 acres of land. As the water receded, the damage to the surrounding areas was apparent, but the damage to Indiana's rivers and lake wasn't.
Jennifer Boyle, of the Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, addressed the crowd on continuing the funding for this program.
Issue 3: creating jobs
Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, spoke for the third item, requesting that the General Assembly pass House Bill 1349, the Renewable Energy Development Act. Also called the Green Jobs Development Act, the bill has been popularized by the slogan "20 percent by 2020." That is, Kharbanda hopes that 20 percent of all energy used by Hoosiers will come from renewable resources by the year 2020.
That would be a significant shift from Indiana's primary energy source, coal.
"Indiana is 96 percent dependent on coal and that's one of the highest in the country," Kharbanda said. "There are a number of profound consequences to our use of coal, most recently reflected in the coal ash spill that took place in Tennessee. We want to diversify the energy sector towards low to no carbon resources such as wind and biomass. We think that now is a prime opportunity to advance [that] legislation."
The incident in Tennessee Kharbanda refers to occurred on Dec. 22 when a dam near Knoxville collapsed and spilled more than 1 billion gallons of ash and sludge into the surrounding area, contaminating homes and a local river.
Coal ash is the residue left after the coal is used to provide electricity. That residue collects in artificial lakes. It is estimated that the ash in the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant has been accumulating for the past 50 years, according to an article published on npr.org. The spill covered more than 300 acres with up to 6 feet of the sludge.
An Associated Press story sited Indiana as one of the states with the largest amount of coal ash in the nation, along with Kentucky, Ohio, Georgia and Alabama.
Kharbanda believes that not only will the shift away from coal be safer to Hoosiers and the environment, but will also help the economy.
"This policy could be a significant driver for jobs and jobs that are much more diffused across Indiana then if we were to continue with coal."
Jobs would be gained not only from construction and operation of these new plants, but, according to Kharbanda, such renewable energy plants would also attract business that would in the future ignore Indiana, due to archaic energy efficiency standards.
"The economic climate of the United States will be significantly different in 10 years time when federal carbon controls are fully implemented and in place. It will make economies like Indiana less competitive because energy prices will significantly increase due to the fact that we are a very carbon intensive energy state."
Back at the Statehouse
After the presentations and before lunch commenced, INCA switched gears from the problems that still face Indiana and celebrated the progress that Indiana has made by presenting their Conservation Legislator of the Year Award.
"Each year the Indiana Conservation Alliance chooses a Legislator of the Year based on their work in the previous legislative session," Hughes said. "For the 2009 Conservation Day we are awarding Representative Scott Pelath [R-Michigan City] the award of 2008 Conservation Legislator of the Year for introducing and shepherding legislation enacting the Great Lakes Compact in Indiana."
INCA also presented its first ever Lifetime Achievement award to Sen. Beverly Gard (R-Greenfield).
"Senator Gard has been a past recipient of the Conservation Legislator of the Year award, so we wanted to recognize her long-standing commitment and work for natural resources," Hughes said.