Natural resources foundation aims for $10M, 1 million trees

January 14, 2012

A foundation supporting the Indiana Department of Natural Resources has launched the first major fundraising campaign in its 22-year history.

The Indiana Natural Resources Foundation hopes to plant 1 million trees and add 1,000 acres to state forests by 2016. If successful, the Indiana Tree Project will bring in $10 million.

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That’s a serious ramp-up for the foundation, which raised $415,000 in the fiscal year ended June 30. Foundation leaders think the tree project will gain traction because people can participate with very small donations. One $10 gift plants a hardwood sapling and allows the donor to track the progress of the acre where it lives.

“It’s a concept and a proven idea that has worked elsewhere,” said Betsy Smith, secretary of the foundation’s board and director of philanthropy at the Indiana chapter of The Nature Conservancy. (The Nature Conservancy’s own Plant a Billion campaign has raised more than $10 million to plant trees in the Atlantic Forest in Brazil.)

trees-factbox.gifThe Indiana Natural Resources Foundation is raising its profile at a time Indiana lawmakers see philanthropy as a way to bolster a number of state-affiliated entities.

The Indiana State Fair Foundation, formed by the Legislature last session, is laying the groundwork for a fundraising campaign to overhaul the Pepsi Coliseum.

And Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis, filed a bill this legislative session that would allow the White River State Park Development Commission to form a not-for-profit corporation for fundraising purposes.

The model seems to be the Indiana State Museum, which ended last fiscal year with a $1.1 million surplus. CEO Tom King has said he’d like to build that surplus to $5 million to overcome declining general-fund support.

The natural resources foundation was created in 1990 to help the DNR buy land. But it had no full-time staff until three years ago.

Foundation leaders have focused on single parks and natural areas—for example, the 2005 purchase of Goose Pond, an 8,000-acre wetland near Linton. A current project is raising $468,000 to restore large-group housing at O’Bannon Woods State Park in Corydon.

The tree project would benefit all 13 state forests, which cover more than 150,000 acres, mostly in southern Indiana. A portion of each donation would go toward future land acquisition.

Executive Director Bourke Patton said it can be difficult to raise money for a state agency.

“People think, they paid their taxes, and they paid admission to a park, and that’s all there is to it,” he said.

While the foundation isn’t covering DNR salaries, it does pay for facilities and education programs that make the state parks attractive, Patton said.

The DNR’s $145 million budget is about the same in the 2011-2013 budget as it was in the prior two-year cycle, but that’s because of a jump in federal funding. General-fund allocations to the agency fell about 16 percent, to $46.7 million.

The foundation created the tree project in response to a request from State Forester John Seifert. Just 19 percent of Indiana is forested, and the DNR’s acquisitions often include cropland that could be planted in valuable oak, walnut and cherry.

Unlike state parks, the forests are managed for commercial logging, so the donated trees could be cut down. The foundation is promising that donations will cover the cost of replanting.

The Indiana State Fair Foundation’s ambitious campaign will likely take on the aging Pepsi Coliseum.

Justin Armstrong, director of advancement at the foundation, would not confirm the Coliseum will be the focus of an impending campaign. But state fair officials began sizing up the situation and commissioned an economic-impact study for the venue more than a year ago.

When the campaign finally kicks off, it will be “sizable,” Armstrong said. “To preserve the landmarks here and ensure that they’re not fancy, but up to code and safe, requires quite a bit of funds.”

The Indiana State Fair Commission relies on various public funds to cover the Fairgrounds’ expenses, which were $14.2 million in 2010. (State fair officials could not provide 2011 figures by press time.)

The commission came up short by $700,000 in 2010 after receiving about $670,000 in general and property tax funds, plus another $6.5 million in gambling-related money.

Despite the existing public support, Armstrong thinks there’s a strong case for fundraising.

“It’s hallowed ground,” he said. “People grew up here. Their children are growing up here.”•


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