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Bill That Would Conserve 30 Percent of N.Y. Awaits Signature

The state Senate passed a bill that would require the state to protect an additional 11 percent of its land and waters by 2030; 19 percent is already conserved. The land would be conserved through conservation easements.

(TNS) — Thirty percent of all land in New York could be conserved under a bill that passed the state Senate with an overwhelming majority earlier this week.

If signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul, the state would have until 2030 to conserve 11 percent more of its land and waters — 19 percent is already protected — in a plan meant to fight climate change, expand the state's biodiversity and preserve farmland.

Assemblywoman Pat Fahy, D- Albany, one of the bill's architects, said there would be nothing requiring New York landowners to hand over their property.

"There's no eminent domain," she said.

Instead, land will be conserved through conversation easements — paid agreements with property owners that their land will remain undeveloped — and voluntary land acquisitions, according to Fahy. The state will also have partners in nongovernmental conservation groups, whose easements and purchases will count toward the 30 percent goal, as will conservation easements on working farms.

Easements on farms, agreements with farmers not to develop their fields, are "definitely considered a significant part of the bill," Fahy said.

These easements "are critical for smart growth efforts and to keep land preserved instead of it turning into the kind of runaway sprawl that has been a problem for decades," she said.

The legislation also speaks of how land conservation can shore up resiliency to natural disasters, which are on the increase due to global warming, but the bill's main thrust is about fighting climate change and its effects.

The bill's genesis lies with the United Nations, which is in the midst of finalizing the "Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework," which recommends the goal of conserving 30 percent of the planet's land and oceans.

The legislation would tie in with the 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), which mandates that the state achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The CLCPA actually sets the goal of reducing emissions by 85 percent; New York will have to remove carbon from the atmosphere to achieve net-zero emissions.

One of the ways to achieve this is through "sequestering" carbon in the plant life of natural lands, according to Jessica Ottney Mahar, the New York policy and strategy director for The Nature Conservancy, though she added carbon storage technology would need to be developed to reach the net-zero goal.

An "exciting" aspect of the bill, Mahar said, was the opportunity to preserve underrepresented habitats. The Catskill Park and the Adirondack Park, the largest conservation areas in the state, are both forest, and the bill could spur the state to look at the science of what kind of ecosystems it protects.

The bill would require a variety of habitats to be conserved and for the conservation to be spread out between rural, suburban and urban environments.

Urban forests are important in the face of climate change as they cool cities during heat waves, and it is important the state spread out investments across different neighborhoods since urban open space has traditionally been located near more wealthy areas, Mahar said.

The bill's passage by the state Senate and Assembly was applauded by The Nature Conservancy and other conservation groups.

This included the group Scenic Hudson, whose director of government relations and public policy, Andy Bicking, said the group and its partners in the Hudson Valley "have been collaborating to permanently protect the land and natural resources in our region, and we are poised and ready to partner with the state to carry out the [proposed] policy."

Conserving New York's land would also aid plant and animal species that have been impacted by climate change and other anthropogenic pressures.

The impacts have been severe. In 2019, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology published a study that found there were 2.9 billion fewer birds in North America than there were in 1970 — a 29 percent decline.

New York Audubon Society Senior Policy Manager Erin McGrath said the new bill could help mitigate that loss.

"One of the primary drivers of these population declines is habitat loss, so that means that we have to prioritize the remainder of the bird habitat that we have in order to see the populations rebound," she said.

Eleven percent of New York is a large chunk of land — about 6,000 square miles — but the bill does not include a fiscal request.

Fahy said the state's $300 million Environmental Protection Fund could help, as could the $4 billion Environmental Bond Act, which is slated to be voted on by New Yorkers in November's election.

The bill passed the Senate 58-3, with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Senator Mike Martucci (R-Catskills), one of the bill's co-sponsors, said in a statement he supported the legislation because he believed in "preserving our agricultural production and heritage, protecting open space, and defending against overdevelopment in order to maintain and improve the quality of life here in the Hudson Valley and Catskills and across New York."

"Being good stewards of our environment should not be a partisan issue, and I've worked hard to get behind realistic goals and practical policies like this one no matter who else joins me," according to Martucci.

(c)2022 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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