South Carolina is a beautiful state blessed with a multitude of natural resources. The pressure on the state’s resources, however, grows as the population increases: fewer forests, less habitat for wildlife, fewer acres devoted to farming.
In 2000, work began on an effort to determine what lands in South Carolina were significant and how they could be protected and sustained. The long-term objective of the Land Legacy Initiative was to identify issues and possible solutions. It was determined that as urban lands increase, there is need to preserve greenways, open space and parks in urban areas in order to promote balanced growth and the well-being and quality of life in South Carolina.
There is also a critical need to fund the preservation of, and public access to, wildlife habitats, natural areas, historical sites, sites of unique ecological significance, forestlands, farmlands, watersheds, open space, and urban parks as essential elements in the orderly development of the state.
The initiative determined that South Carolina needed to establish an ongoing funding source to acquire these real estate interests from willing sellers and that it was critical to encourage cooperation and innovative partnerships among landowners, state agencies, municipalities and non-profit organizations.
The South Carolina General Assembly, in a bipartisan effort, agreed and passed the South Carolina Conservation Bank Act, which became reality in April 2002.
Funding began in July 2004 and since that time the bank has actively pursued its mission of conserving significant sites from willing landowners. Nearly 153,000 acres statewide have been protected, including 141,879 acres of forest and wetlands. Through fiscal year 2009, the bank has spent more than $80.6 million statewide, or about $527 per acre protected.
Not surprisingly, the state budget crisis has affected the efforts of the S.C. Conservation Bank. Its primary source of funding, a portion of state document stamp fees, was hit hard by the recession, and the law creating the bank requires its funding to go to zero in the face of across-the-board budget cuts.
This past week, lawmakers made the right call for the future by agreeing to extend the life of the bank another five years.
Under the law creating it, the bank would not have operated beyond the end of 2013. The sunset clause was a result of initial skepticism about the bank and why the state should be involved in land-conservation efforts, though the need to protect land and help landowners afford to keep lands undeveloped have become increasingly evident in the face of development.
Thankfully, the bank’s financial prospects have brightened this year. With the economy improving, the conservation bank could get about $8 million in funding.
Maintaining the commitment to state protection of critical lands is vital. We owe no less to future generations of South Carolinians.