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Conservationists decry Environmental Trust board's decision to increase grant money for ethanol project

Conservationists decry Environmental Trust board's decision to increase grant money for ethanol project

LINCOLN — Conservationists are up in arms over a decision that calls for directing an extra $1.8 million in grant money to a private company for ethanol pumps at the expense of projects to preserve saline wetlands, duck marshes and a Pine Ridge ranch that features a trout stream.

The Nebraska Environmental Trust board, which distributes grants from state lottery money, voted 7-2 with two abstentions last week to override the recommendations of its own grant review committee.

While two board members defended the move as a bigger help to the agriculture economy and clean air, conservationists said it turned its back on the real mission of the trust — “to conserve, enhance and restore the natural environments” of Nebraska — and was more about economic development than the environment.

“We have some big question marks as to why these ethanol pumps, which were way down the list (of ranked projects), managed to get funded over things that were way higher on the list,” said Bruce Kennedy, president of the Nebraska Wildlife Federation. “It looks like someone circumvented the process.”

The vote took away funding from five projects that got high rankings by the trust’s grant review committee — from No. 7 to No. 36 — and shifted $1.8 million over three years to a project ranked No. 78 among 120 applicants — a proposal by Green Plains Inc., one of the nation’s largest ethanol companies, in collaboration with the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy.

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Green Plains had been recommended for $1.3 million in funding by a grant review committee to help install 60 ethanol blender pumps and storage tanks at service stations across Nebraska. The recommended change, which faces a final vote on April 2, would grant Green Plains $3 million over three years. That is about 50% of the total cost of its project to provide more fuel pumps that can blend ethanol at percentages of 15% and higher.

The defunded projects included $900,000 to continue restoration of rare saline wetlands in the Lincoln area, $834,000 for three marsh restoration projects by Ducks Unlimited, and $117,000 to the Nebraska Land Trust to finance a conservation easement to maintain a 2,900-acre ranch that features wild sheep habitat and a publicly accessible trout stream.

Two members of the Environmental Trust board who voted for the money shift said the board was well within its powers to alter the grant recommendations. Rod Christen of Steinauer and Sherry Vinton of Whitman both said they oppose the public funding of conservation easements, which is a legal step to prevent any future development of a plot of land and conserve its unique properties. They said most of the projects defunded included such easements in some way.

Christen, a farmer, said the economic benefit of the ethanol project is broader than preserving a wetland or ranch. Both Christen and Vinton, a rancher, said a conservation easement can shift the tax load onto other landowners by freezing the valuation, and taxes paid, on the conserved property. And both board members said the rankings by the grant committee are sometimes very subjective.

While conservation easements can preserve a “scenic view,” Christen said he could see such views on “most of the roads in Nebraska.”

But Kennedy, as well as three representatives from other conservation groups who feared reprisals if they were named, said the grant applications undergo a technical review by volunteers with expertise in wildlife habitat and environmental projects. They said they’d never seen such a big change in the rankings, especially one that favored a private company and had “dubious” environmental benefits, over projects from nonprofit groups that preserved unique properties.

“That was a private endeavor that they funded,” Kennedy said. “The public values of the other projects were readily apparent.”

He said the conservation community will have a lot of questions for board members at a public hearing April 2, when the board votes to finalize its recommendations.

Kennedy added that Gov. Pete Ricketts, who appoints nine citizen members on the 14-member Environmental Trust board, should prioritize naming members “who support the entire realm of Environmental Trust projects and let the rating system take hold.”

Public comments can also be mailed or emailed until April 1 to the Nebraska Environmental Trust, P.O. Box 94913, Lincoln NE 68509-4913, or via email at