Growing Grayer? A crucial state environmental fund is in danger of withering away.

 story by Dana Henry

Think of Growing Greener as the massive invisible partner to Pennsylvania’s environmental movement. Hardly anyone has heard of it, and yet the state granting program supports countless local organizations—including the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Penn Future and The Pennsylvania Environmental Council—with thousands of conservation, recreation and educational projects. Now, as the natural gas industry takes hold, making up to 70 percent of state lands potentially vulnerable to fracking, Growing Greener is running dry. The program’s annual investments of $150 million have been whittled away to just $27.4 million for next year.

“It’s like the perfect storm,” warns Andrew Heath, executive director of the Renew Growing Greener Coalition [RGGC], a campaign urging state politicians to replenish the environmental fund. “It’s the worst timing with what’s happening in the economy and what’s happening with the Marcellus Shale drilling. There’s a huge industry ready to move into Pennsylvania that has the potential to cause a lot of environmental damage. This is the time when the most successful environmental program is going to run out of money?”

Part of the problem, according to Heath, is a misappropriation of Growing Greener’s resources. The program, which began in 1999 as a $645 million grant under Gov. Tom Ridge, has two funding sources. Growing Greener I comes from the Environmental Stewardship Fund, revenue created when Gov. Mark S. Schweiker raised landfill dumping fees in 2002. Growing Greener II is a $625 million state-issued bond, passed under a referendum by Ed Rendell in 2005. At this point, the bond money from Growing Greener II has dried up and Growing Greener I is being used to pay back the debts. Heath and the RGGC believe the bond debts should be paid using the general fund—aka tax dollars—instead. This will free up funds from Growing Greener I.

Ultimately, Heath and the RGGC would like to raise Growing Greener funding to $200 million, but acknowledge it won’t happen overnight. The second and more complex piece for increased funding involves Marcellus Shale drilling. The state legislative branch may propose a severance tax or an impact fee for fracking (the process through which natural gas is extracted from the shale formation beneath much of Pennsylvania) and RGGC wants to make sure that any potential revenue goes back into environmental conservation. It also wants a piece of the royalty fees charged for state leased land, once the gas industry cracks the Shale. That revenue, Heath estimates, could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars within five years

In defense of environmental defense, RGGC has organized environmental groups across the state. Historically, Growing Greener has supplied kickstart funds to projects including tree planting, land trusts, parks and trails, farmland conservation, watersheds and flood water management. If these funds evaporate, many projects might not even get far enough to apply for federal and private grants, making the ripple effect potentially disastrous.

“If Pennsylvania loses this money, it’s not like just a grant program disappears,” Heath explains. “We’re literally leaving hundreds of millions of [private and public] dollars on the table that organizations and communities can tap into.”

The coalition continues to urge state policy makers to consider environmental conservation, and has approached county governments to pass resolutions in support of Growing Greener. In April, Philadelphia County became the first to sign one. Heath urges those who’d like to get behind RGGC to sign an online petition available on its website.

Timing is critical. “I fear that if we don’t renew Growing Greener, we’ll not only see the environmental work stop—we’ll reverse the progress we’ve made,” Heath says. “We need to decide to move forward and continue to clean up the devastation the state has endured over the past decades with the coal industry, the timber industry and the oil industry.”

For more, and to sign the RGGC petition, visit renewgrowinggreener.org.