The Nebraska Environmental Trust, headquartered in Lincoln, awards about $20 million a year in grants to help the state’s environment. (Courtesy of the Nebraska Environmental Trust)

This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.

LINCOLN — Another day, another round of criticism for the Nebraska Environmental Trust.

A parade of witnesses, representing the state’s major conservation groups and including former Trust board members, panned a proposed list of rule changes for the agency Thursday as hard to understand, contradictory and possibly cost-prohibitive for small nonprofits to comply with.

‘Confuse, frustrate and prohibit’

“If your intent is to confuse, frustrate and prohibit small grants, it sounds like you’re going to have a huge success,” said former State Sen. Bob Wickersham on behalf of a watchdog group, “Friends of the Environmental Trust.”

Both the Friends group and the Nebraska chapter of the Sierra Club filed petitions with the Trust to engage in a “negotiated rule-making” process through the State Attorney General’s Office, a rarely used mediation designed to resolve controversial rule changes.

Despite the opposition, the Trust Board voted 8-0 moments later to approve the rule changes.

Mark Quandahl, who chairs the board, said the requests for the negotiated rule-making process will be taken up in August, the next time the Trust Board meets.

Grants ‘inconsistent’ in the past

Board members defended the changes as eliminating items duplicated in Nebraska statutes and as removing subjectivity in deciding who should receive grants.

“In the past, it’s been fairly inconsistent,” Jim Hellbusch of Columbus, one of eight members of the 14-person board, said at the board’s meeting Thursday. 

Two other board members, Tim McCoy, the director of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and Felix Davidson, who served as chief operating officer under Gov. Pete Ricketts, also spoke in support of the changes saying that while not “perfect,” they were an improvement.

No testimony in support

No one testified in support of the rule changes on Thursday, but the Trust did receive one letter from Randal Williams of Davenport, who said the changes promoted better accountability.

The Trust gets about $20 million a year from the State Lottery to grant out to organizations and agencies to “conserve, enhance and restore the natural environments of Nebraska.” Wildlife habitat projects, recycling programs and environmental research are among past grant recipients.

But in recent years, the Trust Board has been criticized for deeming dozens of applications ineligible for grants that had received Trust funds in the past. Last year, the board got more heat for rejecting dozens of eligible grants and doling out only $11 million of the $20 million available.

Discourages grant applicants

Lynn Roper, a former Trust Board member from Lincoln, said that recent changes by the Board in rejecting grant applications has discouraged people to apply, “which make me think that is your ultimate goal.”

Others testifying against the rule changes included the Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited and the Sandhills Task Force.

Dayle Williamson, a former director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources who helped write regulations governing the Trust, said the new rules don’t follow the intent of those regulations and make it hard for applicants to understand what is necessary to obtain a grant.

Lincoln businessman Tom Hoegemeyer said that the rules of the Trust should be so “clear and plain” that anyone could understand them. He expressed concern that the Trust wasn’t granting out all of its funds to conservation groups that struggle to finance projects.

‘Smells like an end run’

“This smells like an end run around the intent of the legislation,” he said. “I’m not accusing anyone, but that’s the smell.”

Kristal Stoner of the Audubon Society expressed concerns that nonprofits with small staffs, like hers, would be required to hire outside consultants to prepare applications under the new rules and later, provide “independent” assessments of a project’s performance. That, she said, would rule out some groups from applying for funds.

Later during the meeting, there was also opposition to the Trust Board’s proposed changes in its criteria for ranking grant applications. Critics said they were also confusing, and, in some cases, contrary to the new rules just passed.

A member of the Trust Board, Sherry Vinton, the state’s director of agriculture, tried to quell concerns by explaining that the new criteria only says that an independent evaluation of a project’s outcomes “can” be required instead of “must” be required.

”This is trying to quantify what has been subjective in the past,” Vinton said.

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