Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge has signed a five-year, $646 million package that will boost state spending for environmental protection, farmland preservation and recreation.

The “Growing Greener” plan approved by the General Assembly in December after nearly a year of debate was substantially broader than Ridge’s original proposal, which would have simply redistributed $425 million in existing funds.

But Ridge had declared that passing “Growing Greener” before the General Assembly ended its session was his highest legislative priority for the fall. He signed the compromise bill during a Dec. 15 ceremony on a Chester County hill overlooking a 60-acre undeveloped tract that will be protected under the program’s first grant.

“We fought for ‘Growing Greener’ because we must protect these special open areas today, or they will be lost tomorrow,” Ridge said. “And once developed, they are gone forever.”

“Our Constitution gives Pennsylvani-ans the right to clean air, to pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment,” Ridge said. “We have a constitutional obligation to leave ‘Penn’s Woods’ better than we found them — and today we act decisively to fulfill it.”

The final version reshuffles $173 million in existing funds for recycling, hazardous-waste cleanups and landfill closures, but it also includes $473 million from the General Fund in response to pressure from Ridge’s fellow Republicans who control the legislature.

That was not enough to satisfy some environmentalists who wanted funds for existing environmental programs left untouched and instead supported a bond issue for a larger land program. The bond proposal was opposed by Ridge.

A coalition of environmental groups which had supported such an alternative said the final bill did not ensure that the funding would stay in place in the future. Most of the money would come from general state funds, meaning the appropriation will become part of annual budget deliberations.

“Growing Greener contains no secure or dedicated funding to back up the governor’s ... promise,” said John Hanger, president of the PennFuture advocacy group. “Each budget year will be a highly uncertain struggle to ensure that money is provided.”

The final measure was approved by the House of Representatives by a vote of 166-28. The Senate had approved the measure 49-1.

Of the money to be spent in the next five years, $105.9 million is to be spent this year, and $135 million a year for the next four.

Of that money:

  • $100 million will go for farmland protection;
  • $154 million for infrastructure at state parks and grants to counties, municipalities and other authorities for local parks, recreational trails and other environmental efforts;
  • $239 million will go to the Department of Environmental Protection to clean up mines, plug oil and gas wells, and award grants for local watershed projects and wastewater treatment projects;
  • $152 million will go into PennVEST, the state program to fund grants for drinking water, stormwater and sewer infrastructure projects.

Statewide, hundreds of farmers seeking to protect tens of thousands of acres of land are currently on waiting lists to sell conservation easements to the state and county governments.

A $100 million bond issue that Pennsylvania voters approved for the program in 1987 was exhausted by 1997, and state funding for the program since then has been limited to about $22 million a year in cigarette-tax revenue.

Among its other programs, the bill also provides $2 million to expand the Small Business and Household Hazardous Pollution Prevention Program to provide on-site assessments for pollution prevention and energy efficiency.

In addition, the bill enacts the Environmental Good Samaritan Act, which provides legal immunity for people who volunteer to clean up polluted lands in cooperation with the Department of Environmental Protection.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report

Growing Greener Applications & Workshops

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection will begin accepting applications for watershed restoration and protection grants authorized by the Growing Greener initiative beginning Jan. 4.

Counties, local governments, authorities, conservation districts, watershed associations and other nonprofit groups involved in watershed restoration and protection are eligible to apply.

The new grants can fund a wide variety of watershed projects, including installing stream buffers, fencing streams, treating or eliminating acid mine drainage, restoring wetlands, reclaiming abandoned mines, watershed assessments and education programs.

The DEP has partnered with the Pennsylvania Organization for Watersheds and Rivers (POWR) to hold a series of 12 grant-writing workshops throughout the state in January.

Workshops are scheduled at 1:30 and 7:00 p.m. on these dates:

  • Tuesday, Jan. 11 at the DEP Southeast Regional Office, Suite 610, Lee Park, 555 North Lane, Conshohocken
  • Thursday, Jan. 13 at the DEP Northeast Regional Office, 2 Public Square, Wilkes-Barre
  • Wednesday, Jan. 19, at the DEP Northwest Regional Office, 230 Chestnut St., Meadville
  • Thursday, Jan. 20, at the Sheraton Inn - Pittsburgh North, 910 Sheraton Drive, Mars
  • Monday, Jan. 24, at the DEP Southcentral Regional Office, 909 Elmerton Ave., Harrisburg
  • Wednesday, Jan. 26, at the DEP Northcentral Regional Office, 208 West Third St., Suite 101 Williamsport, PA

In the first round of grants, the state is seeking applications for on-the-ground projects, like planting stream buffers, reclaiming abandoned mine sites or treating acid mine drainage. Priority will be given to groups who sponsor several projects in their watershed in a coordinated way.

The deadline for grant applications is Feb. 11.

To get an application, apply on-line or for information, visit the DEP through the Pennsylvania homepage at www.state.pa.us or directly at www.dep.state.pa.us (choose Growing Greener Grants Center).

An on-line discussion board will also be available on the DEP’s web site to help answer questions.

Application packets can be requested by sending your name, postal address and phone number by e-mail to GrowingGreener@dep.state.pa.us or by calling toll-free 1-877-PAGREEN.