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Unfulfilled Promise:The Million Acres Initiative and the Need to Protect North Carolina's Open Spaces
by Kari Wohlschlegel, Frontier Group, and Elizabeth Outzs, Environment North Carolina Research & Policy Center
From the Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks, North Carolina is renowned for its natural beauty. Unfortunately, rapid development over the past several decades has threatened many of our most treasured open spaces.
Recognizing the importance of preserving our natural places for ourselves and future generations, North Carolina’s General Assembly established the Million Acre Initiative to protect one million acres of land between January 1, 1999 and December 31, 2009. While many important and beautiful places were protected in the process, it is now clear that North Carolina has fallen short of this goal.
At the start of a new decade, it is vital that North Carolina redouble its commitment to protecting important natural lands from development.
Protecting open spaces is vital to North Carolina’s future.
- Protecting land near reservoirs, rivers and groundwater recharge zones improves the quality of drinking water. The U.S. EPA estimates that it is 20 to 400 times more expensive to treat polluted water than to prevent contamination through watershed protection.
- Natural lands help the economy by attracting tourists, improving retail sales, and creating job opportunities. The Blue Ridge Parkway alone attracts 21 million visitors and contributes $2 billion to the economy each year.
North Carolina’s natural lands are threatened by development.
- Between 1987 and 2007, an average of 325 acres of natural lands were converted to residential or commercial use in North Carolina every day.
- North Carolina has lost more than one million acres of natural lands in the past decade, more than any other state in the U.S.
- Rapid development is expected to continue, especially once the nation’s economy recovers. By 2030, North Carolina’s population will total 12 million people, an increase of nearly one third over current numbers.
North Carolina’s Million Acre Initiative has protected many important natural places, but the state has fallen far short of achieving the million acre goal.
- North Carolina created the Million Acre Initiative in response to community meetings that highlighted the need for open space preservation. The Initiative set a goal of protecting one million acres between January 1, 1999 and December 31, 2009.
- Among the important natural places protected through the initiative are:
o Grandfather Mountain located in Avery, Watauga and Caldwell counties. The conservation of this scenic, mountainous area enabled the creation of North Carolina’s 34th state park – Grandfather Mountain State Park.
o Chimney Rock - a place of great natural beauty, complete with unique geological formations, breathtaking vistas and spectacular waterfalls.
o 64,000 acres of game lands surrounding the Roanoke, Upper Tar and Chowan Rivers in the northeast, and Juniper Creek in southeastern North Carolina. This transaction is the largest conservation deal in the state’s history.
- By the end of 2008, 643,209 acres had been preserved under the Million Acre Initiative, less than two-thirds the amount originally pledged. Due to the downturn in the economy, land preservation efforts in North Carolina slowed dramatically in 2009.
- Failure to meet the Million Acre Goal is the result of insufficient funding throughout the life of the Initiative. In 2008, for example, there was a shortfall of over $140 million between requested and allocated funds.
- The problem of insufficient funding intensified during the recent recession. Although the Clean Water Management Trust Fund board awarded more than $65 million for land acquisition in 2008, most of that money was reallocated to other areas of the state budget. In its 2009 session, the General Assembly put another $50 million into the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, but six months into the 2009-2010 fiscal year, the state has not released any of that money toward land acquisition.
North Carolina must renew its commitment to land preservation.
- The state must commit to achieving the original goal of the Million Acres Initiative at the soonest possible time to ensure protection for North Carolina’s most valuable natural places.
- Recognizing the potential of land conservation to bolster the state’s economy, the state must begin to release money from the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, the Natural Heritage Trust Fund and the Clean Water Management Trust Fund for land acquisition.
- North Carolina must continue to pursue the protection of ecologically sensitive areas, such as land around Chimney Rock State Park, Hanging Rock State Park, and the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.