Fragile funding worries conservation groups

ADDISON COUNTY –– While enjoying the summer, many people probably have explored the Trail Around Middlebury, scampered around Moosalamoo Mountain, hiked on the Long Trail or taken binoculars out to Dead Creek for birdwatching.
Some may not realize that these areas, and many others in Addison County, are maintained by nonprofits.
The TAM, as the Trail Around Middlebury is affectionately known, is a Middlebury Area Land Trust (MALT) project. The Moosalamoo Association advertises and maintains the Moosalamoo trails. The Green Mountain Club maintains the Long Trail and the Otter Creek Audubon Society runs wildlife recovery and birding programs.
The nonprofits’ missions focus on protecting and conserving wildlife and land while making it available for recreation. Nonprofits in general are feeling the effects of federal budget cuts and these organizations are no exception. Each nonprofit experienced cuts to their funding.
MALT treasurer Rachael Gosselin sees a common denominator in funding cuts for conservation nonprofits. They tend to lose funding before others because they don’t provide a direct, tangible service to people, she said.
“It’s not necessarily a direct service that is given so it’s extremely difficult to get funds,” she said. “I think that it’s part of their thought when the grants are cut, that it isn’t for the direct health of people. They think, if (a conservation organization) doesn’t get this grant, someone’s not going to physically suffer for it. That is unfortunate because people do enjoy going out and those funds are needed to run the organizations.”
The Green Mountain Club, or GMC, founded and maintains the Long Trail and maintains the Appalachian Trail in Vermont. The local arm of the GMC is the Bread Loaf Section. Will Wiquist, GMC’s executive director, said that 200,000 people use the group’s trails. He explained the work that goes into trail upkeep, adding that Tropical Storm Irene increased the workload in the past year.
“We have over 500 miles of trails in Vermont that we manage,” he said. “The club, through volunteers and through staff, do trail work, from clipping back branches and doing basic drainage work to building bridges and repairing Irene damage.”
GMC’s annual budget is $2 million, two-thirds of which comes from private individuals. GMC also receives money for projects done as contractors on federal- or state-owned land.
The organization’s federal funding decreased  over the past few years, though Irene offset that decrease, Wiquist said.
“It has gone down, but it hasn’t gone down a lot because of Irene recovery dollars,” he said. “Irene did a quarter of a million dollars worth of damage on club trails. A lot of our work for the next two field seasons will be Irene recovery. There is federal funding for that.”
GMC works with its partners, the U.S. Forest Service and Appalachian Trail Conservancy, on many of these government projects. Wiquist said these connections help the organization get funding. GMC also got money from the Emergency Relief for Federally Owned Roads Program, because of some damaged trails’ proximity to roads.
Irene recovery has overshadowed GMC’s general upkeep.
“Normally there’s a list of things that need to be done, when we’re not reacting to storm damage, and it’s areas with general wear and tear, bridges worn out, shelters to be rebuilt, there’s a lot of work to be done for general maintenance,” Wiquist said.
Most of the federal money GMC recently received is for Irene recovery, Wiquist said.
“One concern is when major Irene repairs are done, will there be federal funding for trail work we do on federal lands? That could be a problem down the road,” he said.
The cuts in federal money for general maintenance forced GMC to decrease staffing and scale back trail and shelter upkeep.
“We have had to reduce staff for our Long Trail Patrol, a group that is out in the woods doing heavy stone work and building ladders and repairing bridges,” Wiquist said. “Out of a dozen or so people, we now have two or three fewer staffers, which adds up with a small crew. It restricts us. One example of an area that struggles when we don’t have as much funding as we would hope would be repairing and replacing shelters, and we have more that 60 different shelters in Vermont.”
Despite the cuts and Irene-specific  federal funds, Wiquist is confident that GMC can keep up with necessary work.
“I would still say something like the Bread Loaf Wilderness would have consistent general maintenance,” he said. “For example if  a shelter got run down or a regular storm came through and washed out a trail we’d find a way to get it done, but it would be a lot harder without federal funds.”
Moosalamoo Mountain in Salisbury is in a federally recognized National Recreation Area (NRA). Doug Sawyer, the Moosalamoo Association board president, said the 18,000-acre NRA includes 120 miles of hiking and biking trails.
The association maintains the trails and promotes responsible recreation. The trails are well-maintained, providing a sound base for the association, Sawyer said.
“The infrastructure is pretty well done,” he said. “There’s some maintenance that has to be done from time to time, but most of that’s been done. Now we’re trying to get more people to be aware of it and to use it. Particularly locals, a lot of people in this area don’t know about it or don’t realize it’s a recreation area.”
The organization’s budget is small and now comprised mainly of private money.
“Right now it’s a pretty modest number because we’ve just had to adjust to the economic reality of what we’re doing,” Sawyer said.
Over the past decade, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., secured several federal earmarks  for the association, which peaked between 2004 and 2008. Those funds have dried up, Sawyer said.
“It’s been ramping down for the last two and a half years,” he said. “The prospects of getting additional money don’t look particularly promising. You might get the odd little project here or there, but nothing at the level we were talking about in the past. Now it really is largely private money that support us.”
One of the most significant effects of the decrease in funds is the organization’s inability to replace their executive director.
“We have an executive director who recently left, but we can’t replace her,” Sawyer said. “We just don’t have the funds to do it.”
That loss has transformed the organization.
“We really are kind of running it much more as a volunteer organization with a board, which is difficult because all of us have jobs,” Sawyer said. “We just can’t devote the same amount of time as you can when you have somebody spending 40 or 50 hours a week on it. Whether we can find a way to rejuvenate that, it really gets back to funding.”
The association looks to grants to fill their funding void, but lacking an executive director  makes that challenging.
“There are a couple things we’ve talked about trying to get some money for, but it’s going to take time to do it,” he said. “Kind of the Catch-22 we have now is, we don’t really have the person to go chase the money because we don’t have the money to pay the person.”
Still, Sawyer is optimistic about the association. He cited the quality of the trails and the enthusiasm of the people who use them.
“You just never know when something positive is going to happen,” he said. “What we really want to do is get more people there. The people that use it love it.”
 The Otter Creek Audubon Society, the local chapter of the state organization, runs programs focused on science, education and advocacy, and assists with wildlife recovery projects, explained chapter president Barb Otsuka.
Doug Parker, the executive director of the Vermont Audubon Society, explained that private funds make up most of the organization’s $850,000 annual budget, though it receives some project-based federal money.
“One source of funding is called State Wildlife Grants, which is federal money given to state fish and wildlife agencies,” he said. “They parcel it out for individual projects and species recovery efforts. This past year there’s been a 30 percent decrease and they had less money to give out.”
With this decrease, the state society cut back on successful recovery programs for peregrine falcons and common terns.
“We had to devote less staff time to them,” Parker said. “Our staff had to work on other programs where we could get funding.”
He said that federal cuts to the National Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, undercut the society’s ability to help protect priority species on private land.
“They had some cuts to their funding and a lot of that goes to landowners in Vermont to improve conservation management of their land,” Parker said. “This year there was a significant cut to the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP). Landowners apply to NRCS for funding to help priority wildlife species. NRCS had to cut that way back this year.”
The Vermont society works with landowners applying for WHIP funds to help protect wildlife. The cuts mean fewer landowners can get money to do that.
“We can’t really help them apply for that because there’s no money,” Parker said.
Locally, the biggest change in federal funding was a decrease in chapter grants. These go from the National Audubon Society to regional chapters
“That little bit of money has really decreased,” Otsuka said. “We applied, but that has definitely decreased  in increments that are noticeable in the past few years … That tightening at the national level is impacting the locals. We just have to ask for smaller amounts to further our mission and run activities in line with our mission.”
The mission to protect wildlife and their habitats and encourage a culture of conservation is the most important aspect of their work, said Otsuka.
“We just stay focused on our mission,” she said.
MALT is a conservation and education organization, explained treasurer Rachael Gosselin.
“We do a lot of education and outreach for schools and kids with camps and hikes,” she said.
MALT’s annual budget is $150,000, and consists mostly of grants and donations. Donations have remained consistent, but winning grants is increasingly difficult.
“We rely on a lot of grants for the organization and projects,” Gosselin said. “The last couple of years have been more difficult. There’s more requirements and grant amounts have been cut back and then there’s just a lot of time and processing. Grants are not as available as they were four years ago.”
In response to the decrease in grant money, MALT staff have cut operation costs, Gosselin explained.
“We’ve slimmed down the budget and we’re in a smaller space, which cut our costs,” she said. “We cut costs in a lot of areas that were general and operating to slim the budget down so we could meet everything with the grant money, organizational money and the membership funds that we do get.”
Even with the grants the staff can apply for, they consider the value of their time and other resources relative to the grant amounts.
“Management looks to see what we qualify for and what it would take to apply for them,” Gosselin said. “For some of them there’s so much time and so much required that the amount you would get from that would equal out the staff having to write up the proposal.”
The organization can keep up with maintenance even without as many grants due to volunteer work led by a key volunteer.
“John Derick, who’s here in town, does the maintenance on a lot of our trails and properties and he has interns from Middlebury College that help,” Gosselin said. “They do a lot of time donation that we don’t pay for. So luckily we haven’t had to cut back on doing the trails and maintenance and things like that.”
Support for MALT encourages the staff to keep working on their projects even as the organization downsizes.
“Being Vermont, we’re known as the Green Mountain State and in order to keep tourists and people in the area interested  in outside activities, trails and projects like TAM are needed,” Gosselin said. “It’s great, the comments that come back from people who use it. They say, ‘I don’t know what we’d do if it wasn’t here.’ It’s a great addition to the community.”

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