S. 753

Highlands Conservation Act of 2021

Statement for the Record

U.S. Department of the Interior

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee

Legislative Hearing

June 23, 2021

The Department of the Interior (Department) appreciates the opportunity to provide its views on S. 753, the Highlands Conservation Reauthorization Act of 2021, which would reauthorize the Highlands Conservation Act (HCA). The Department supports this legislation.  

Overview of the Highlands Conservation Act

The HCA (P.L. 108-421) authorizes a grant program to the Highlands states of Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania to acquire land and protect natural resources in the Highlands Region. The Highlands Region is 3.4 million acres of biologically diverse landscape distinguished by Appalachian ridges, hills, and plateaus that provide nature-oriented recreational opportunities for millions of people living in or visiting the Northeast.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is the lead agency for administering the HCA Grant Program, in coordination with the U.S. Forest Service, and provides administration and oversight of the program. The Service works closely with the four Highlands states to identify priority areas for state land acquisition to meet state and Federal conservation goals. The FY 2022 President’s Budget includes $10 million for the HCA grant program.

Since passage of the HCA in 2004, almost $70 million in HCA funding has been awarded to the states to acquire 11,000 acres of land in the Highlands Region. Under the Service’s coordination, the HCA Grant Program has leveraged non-Federal funds at a 2:1 ratio, doubling the minimum 1:1 amount required by law. Projects support key conservation objectives outlined in the law such as clean drinking water, healthy forests, thriving wildlife populations, productive agriculture, and abundant recreational opportunities.

The HCA grant program is conserving outdoor recreational areas to encourage a connection between people and the outdoors. One in nine Americans lives within a two-hour drive of the outdoor recreational opportunities provided by the Highlands Region. The HCA Grant Program is protecting strategically important natural areas that sustain a diversity of fish and wildlife species. The Service’s priority at-risk species benefiting from HCA land conservation include many species such as the bog turtle, northern long-eared bat, brook floater mussel, and New England cottontail.

Examples of important lands acquired with HCA funds include the following:

  • The State of New York Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation (NY Parks) completed the purchase of 116 acres to expand the 19,293-acre Sterling Forest, a state park described by NY Parks as a “nearly pristine natural refuge amidst one of the nation’s most densely populated areas, a remarkable piece of woodland, a watershed for millions, and a tremendous outdoor recreation area.” This acquisition creates new public access to Sterling Forest and protects habitat for the timber rattlesnake, a state listed threatened species, as well as potential habitat for the Federally listed northern long-eared bat.
  • The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection acquired a conservation easement on 107 acres that includes the northern ridge and northwestern face of Coltsfoot Mountain and over 800 linear feet of Furnace Brook, an important tributary of the Housatonic River. The property shares almost a mile of common boundary with Wyantenock State Forest and abuts Cornwall Conservation Trust conservation land. The headwaters land is in a large unbroken forest block of over 4,000 acres in the Connecticut-Massachusetts-New York region of western New England, with habitat that can support Federally listed northern long-eared bat and small whorled pogonia. The property will provide a new access point to the regional Mohawk Trail.
  • The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, with help from the Natural Lands Trust, acquired the 103-acre Seidel Hill as an addition to the William Penn State Forest. Allegheny Creek winds around the western base of Seidel Hill as it makes its way to the Schuylkill River. Seidel Creek flows to the eastern base of Seidel Hill. Both waterways are popular fishing destinations. Pennsylvania identified the property as a priority for conservation because of interior forest habitat critical for migrating and nesting neo-tropical songbirds.
  • The New Jersey Highlands Council conserved 115 acres in Mansfield Township, Warren County, with a conservation easement, keeping the land in private ownership while protecting natural resources in perpetuity. The conserved property, with meadows, upland forest, a stream and a pond, is mapped as critical wildlife habitat for eleven New Jersey listed species: eight birds, one mammal and two turtles. The land lies along the ridgetop of Pohatcong Mountain. When combined with surrounding, previously conserved parcels, the property creates a total protected wildlife corridor of 621 acres.

S. 753, Highlands Conservation Reauthorization Act of 2021

The Department supports reauthorization of the HCA to continue the land acquisition goals of the program. S. 753 includes provisions to update and modernize the HCA, including the use of the latest scientific and geographic information systems to identify priority lands for acquisition. The bill would also limit the Service to no more than $300,000 for the administration of the program. The Service receives authorization for administrative expenses through the appropriations process and appreciates the certainty provided by this provision in the legislation. In addition, the Department supports the provision to allow the Highland states to expend up to 5 percent of awarded HCA funds to administer the program. 

The Department looks forward to working with Congress on this important program.

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