The Beattie School Garden was partially funded by the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum and Nebraska Environmental Trust. Content Exchange

In the wake of a controversial decision by the Nebraska Environmental Trust board to defund five conservation projects and award $1.8 million to several gas stations for installation of ethanol-blend pumps, a new citizens group has been formed to advocate for compliance with the trust's environmental mission.

The environmental trust is funded with proceeds from the Nebraska Lottery and its statutory directive is to conserve, enhance and restore Nebraska's environment, Friends of the Nebraska Environmental Trust stated Friday in a news release.

Former Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler, who introduced the legislation that created the trust when he was a member of the Legislature, is chairman of the new organization.

It intends to closely examine the recent 2020 grant application process to determine whether there was compliance with the law and good governance practices, Beutler said. 

The board's controversial decision in June was directed at funding the ethanol industry and economic development rather than adhering to the statutory requirements that the money must be used to protect the environment, Beutler previously said.

More than $330 million has been allocated to local environmental projects over the past 27 years, he said, with funding flowing into every county.

In addition to Beutler, founding members of the new organization include former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, former state Sens. Bob Wickersham and Sandy Scofield, and four former members of the trust, including two former chairwomen.

"We want to ensure the trust lives up to its full promise," former Trust board member Gail Yanney said.

"Those of us who were trust board members saw first-hand that trust funding can be a great catalyst for community conservation projects," she said.

In addition, projects often have a positive economic impact, Yanney said.

The state constitution splits lottery proceeds among the environmental trust, education, the State Fair and compulsive gambling programs.

"A key reason Nebraskans voted to create a lottery was the promise that proceeds would support our environment and education," said Randy Moody, a founding member of the new group.

Moody was manager of the campaign to win approval of the lottery.

The grant-issuing Nebraska Environmental Trust Board, which is scheduled to meet again Monday and Tuesday in Lincoln, consists of nine citizens, including three from each congressional district, appointed by the governor. In addition, five state agency directors are voting board members.

Gov. Pete Ricketts has said that the grant switch to ethanol pumps, which was approved on a 7-3 vote, was appropriate.

"This is something that's going to benefit a huge part of our overall rural economy," he said at a news conference in June. 

"It's a very wise use of our grant dollars," the governor said. 

Among the five conservation projects that were defunded was $900,000 to continue restoration of rare saline wetlands in the Lincoln area. 

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