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March 18, 2007

New York Times

Nickels and Farms

Residents of the Hudson Valley should be paying close attention to a simmering debate in Albany over legislation that environmentalists call the “bigger, better bottle bill” and that water-carriers for the beverage industry call an onerous new tax.

The environmentalists, in this case, are right. The bill is not a tax, it is an expansion of the existing law on bottle deposits for beer and soda to include non-carbonated beverages like juice and water, require the beverage industry to return all unclaimed deposits to the state to finance recyling and other envionmental needs (industry now keeps these deposits) and tweak the current law in other useful ways.

The goal is to collect lots and lots more nickels to save lots of trees and farms and, of course, eliminate a lot of roadside litter, which was among the law’s main purposes when it first passed the legislature in 1982.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer strongly supports the enlarged bill, which he wants to use to add $25 million to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund. The fund, which increased from $125 million to $225 million in George Pataki’s last two years as governor, underwrites most of the state’s important environmental programs.

Regrettably, however, Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno and his fellow Republicans are balking, even though their party boasts a long and distinguished record of environmental stewardship and many individual Republicans have environmental records they can be justly proud of.

An agreement on the bill would be a good thing for all of New York State, but particularly so in the New York City watershed on both sides of the Hudson River, where steady development threatens the intergity of the city’s water supply, and in the Hudson Valley, whose vitality rests on the preservation of a beautiful, bountiful landscape that is equally endangered by the spread of blacktop and housing.

Environmental organizations know the urgency. Scenic Hudson, an advocacy organization based in Poughkeepsie, is one among many that have rallied to urge the bill’s passage. The money from all those bottle deposits would lend significant muscle to one of Scenic Hudson’s singular missions -- the preservation of farmland, now disappearing in the valley at the rate of seven acres a day. Scenic Hudson realizes that saving farms is not just about preserving bucolic views, but also maintaining a healthy, sustainable economy that is built on good soil, clean air, open space and, of course, the health and timeless appeal of the river itself.

Such is the bill’s worthiness that more than 100 groups have rallied to its side, including campus groups and local organizations for whom even small amounts of money can provide large payoffs. The Land Trust Alliance, for instance, says that the $1 million earmarked for the state’s Conservation Partnership Program can be leveraged to create more millions in private donations to help the state’s 90 local and regional land trusts protect farmland, working forests and wildlife habitat.

In like manner, organizations like the Glynwood Center in Cold Spring have begun projects to resurrect the vibrancy of upstate communities by restoring the frayed links of a locally based agricultural economy where town and farm rely on one another.

These groups all recognize that the future of the Hudson Valley can’t all be casinos and strip malls. Mr. Spitzer has declared himself their ally, and much is riding on his success. Nickel by nickel, the bigger, better bottle bill could begin to lay the foundation of a new governor’s environmental legacy.


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