The Nature Conservancy finds itself in an unusual position in Salem. Last year, the group funded the campaign that resulted in the landslide victory of Measure 76, which enshrined in the Oregon Constitution the current practice of setting aside 15 percent of Oregon Lottery proceeds for the reclamation and acquisition of wildlife habitat and parks.
But rather than enjoying that victory, The Nature Conservancy is embroiled in a dispute over the terms of some amendments to Measure 76 that it and other interested parties agreed should be referred to voters by the 2011 Legislature.
At the heart of the dispute is a disagreement over how the more than $80 million in annual funding provided by the Lottery set-aside should be allocated. Currently, 55 percent of the money is sent to the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, which issues grants for projects around the state. Measure 76 would increase the grant portion of the money from 55 percent to 65 percent. Lawmakers think the right number is 58 percent and that is what they would like to refer to voters. The Nature Conservancy disagrees and that has caused a blow-up. Complicating the argument is the fact that The Nature Conservancy is the biggest recipient of the funds allocated to grant-funded projects. Earlier this week, WW asked the Nature Conservancy by email to clarify its position on the referral.
Here are responses to those questions (which have been edited for clarity) from Nature Conservancy spokesman Stephen Anderson.
WW : In [Nature Conservancy government affairs director] Nan Evans' Feb. 22 legislative testimony, she objected to lawmakers' proposed 58-42 split of Lottery proceeds. Nature Conservancy President Russ Hoeflich subsequently issued a statement that did not address how the funding should be split. Can you clarity TNC's position on that particular point now?
Stephen Anderson: We've indicated to legislative leaders that we can be flexible on how the split between grants and agencies is structured, in a way that both honors our agreement and keeps faith with the voters, who passed the measure overwhelmingly. Our discussion with the leadership is ongoing, and we are confident a workable solution can be achieved.
The Nature Conservancy has been the largest recipient of [Oregon Lottery-sourced] grant dollars over the past decade. How does TNC's direct interest in continuing to maximize grant monies affect TNC's position on the details of the proposed referral and particularly the
split of the Lottery monies between agency and grant expenditures?
It doesn't. Both the grants program and the natural resource agencies are vital to Oregonians being able to preserve the health of our streams, rivers, natural areas and important habitats as Oregon continues to grow. So, in your wording, our interest as a conservation organization is to maximize both. With respect to the grants program, there is no guarantee The Nature Conservancy will ever receive another dime from it. The grants are awarded to projects on a competitive basis, according to the criteria OWEB has set, aligned with the purposes of the dedicated funds as spelled out in our state Constitution.
More context about the grants program: As the endorsement of Measure 76 by community groups across the state—watershed councils, local land trusts, other nonprofits, businesses and local leaders—suggests, the
grants program is popular because it plugs into local communities and improves habitats in ways that benefit them. It creates local private sector jobs in habitat restoration, construction and other fields. I'm
sure this was part of your Measure 76 endorsement interview as well. This information was prominent in the campaign, and may help account for the broad support from voters, who passed the measure in every Oregon
county. How this money is actually spent (to be fair, it isn't just "doled out"), the growing restoration economy it supports, and the model Oregon is providing to other states in this regard is a fascinating story that hasn't really been told. Let me know—I'd be happy to provide examples and more information.