Conservationists say budget cuts have crippled land conservation programs in Kentucky. Conservationists are in Frankfort, telling lawmakers that budget cuts are handcuffing efforts to protect public lands - land often used for recreation.

Ruth Banberger, the Sierra Club's legislative chair, said the state is "robbing" funds specifically earmarked for land-conservation programs by sweeping millions of those dollars into the general fund to help cover budget shortfalls.

"The conservation programs have been cut to the bone," she said. "They were cut to the bone in the last administration and they're being further cut to the bone in the current administration."

Funding for public-lands protection took an $8 million hit in the current two-year budget cycle and Gov. Matt Bevin has proposed cutting another $10 million administered by the Heritage Land Conservation Fund over the next two years.

David Phemister, the Nature Conservancy's state director, said the cuts are having both an immediate and lasting impact on opportunities to protect public lands.

"If we stop doing that sort of work, opportunities for people to get out and enjoy nature, to revive their spirits, to have clean air, clean water, we're going to lose those opportunities," he said. "So, it's really important to make these investments now."

Phemister said the budget cuts have stalled conservation projects and reduced funding for the management of public lands. The Heritage Land Conservation Fund has protected nearly 90,000 acres at 130 locations across the state.

The Nature Conservancy is part of a broad coalition of nonprofit and faith groups, outdoor sports enthusiasts and conservation interests that are asking lawmakers to restore dollars to land conservation programs. Phemister says it's about the environment and the economy.

"Outdoor recreation is big business in Kentucky," he said. "If we stop investing in it, those business opportunities are going to decline over time."

Phemister says one common misconception is that protected lands are off limits to the public. He said the great majority are open to activities such as hiking, fishing and birdwatching.