It’s been our pleasure over the last several months to work with a coalition of groups in North Carolina to develop a five-year plan to reinvigorate the state’s commitment to land conservation. Securing North Carolina’s Future, released yesterday by Land for Tomorrow, documents how the state has fared in meeting previous conservation goals and calls for $800 million in public investment over five years to protect important natural lands and working landscapes.
The experience of talking with land trusts, state officials and citizens across North Carolina during this project has left me deeply impressed by the level of commitment to protecting what is best about their state. State and local governments, non-profit organizations and landowners, and countless others throughout the state have worked together to protect nearly 400,000 acres of land since 2005. At the same time, the state made tremendous progress in the critical planning and assessment work that can lay the groundwork for smart conservation initiatives in the years to come.
Unfortunately, since 2008, funding for critical land conservation programs has been slashed, slowing the pace of land conservation to a crawl. That’s a shame because a recession – especially one in the real estate market – is a perfect time to bank environmentally important land for the future at low cost. It’s also a shame because a lack of state funding affects the ability of other partners in land preservation – non-profits, local governments, and land owners – to bring conservation projects to completion.
As we documented in our 2008 report, Preserving America’s Natural Heritage, conservation programs need dedicated sources of funding to develop effective long-term strategies for protecting important natural lands. With a stable funding commitment, conservation programs can be proactive rather than reactive, can execute multi-faceted plans to protect critical corridors and ecosystems, and can negotiate land purchases and transfers from a position of strength. North Carolina had dedicated funding for some of its conservation programs, but much of that funding was diverted to other needs during the recent economic downturn. The dedicated sources of funding that remained were tied to real estate transactions and so took a fall at the same time the real estate market did, leaving conservation programs with few resources.
Securing North Carolina’s Future shows that the benefits of land conservation for North Carolina are great, both in the form of valuable “natural services” such as clean air, clean water and protection against flooding, and as a key element in preserving a high quality of life that will continue to attract people to the state to visit or to live. Land conservation should not be seen as a “frill” to be put on the back burner when times are tight. Rather, it should be seen as a critical and ongoing component of the work state governments do to protect the health and welfare of their people and the vibrancy of their economies.
We hope that Securing North Carolina’s Future reminds citizens and decision-makers of the benefits North Carolina has received from its conservation efforts and helps create new energy for reinvigorating those efforts in the months and years to come.