The most urgent issue Audubon South Carolina is working on in the 2018 state legislative session is the reauthorization of the South Carolina Conservation Bank — our state’s most important tool for land protection.
This outstanding program has protected more than 300,000 acres of forests, farms, historic sites, hunting land, urban parks, and wetlands throughout our state. And it’s done so at the average cost of just 17 cents on the dollar. That's because it takes a market-driven, voluntary approach that’s highly-cost effective.
Despite these impressive measures of success, the Conservation Bank automatically "sunsets" this June. As our state legislature considers reauthorization, the Bank may not survive, or it may be drastically changed.
Some change may be prudent. But Audubon South Carolina is working hard to insure that the Bank continues to:
- Receive stable funding;
- Protect large amounts of land at minimal cost; and
- Base its investment decisions on a scientific analysis of which land is most critical for protecting birds and other imperiled species.
Sounds reasonable, right? But reason doesn’t always prevail in Columbia. A few months ago, if you’d asked me what our chances were of winning on these three simple points, I’d have been optimistic to suggest 50/50.
Fortunately, the New Year has brought a fresh spirit of cooperation. When I spoke recently at a legislative briefing, everyone listened attentively as I explained that we need state funds to attract the private donations and big federal grants essential to protecting our state's natural resources (see sidebar).
Legislators understand, too, the popularity of the Conservation Bank. From the Angel Oak, the Morris Island Lighthouse, and Botany Bay Preserve near Charleston to Stumphouse Mountain and the Swamp Rabbit Trail in Greenville, this program has preserved properties that provide tremendous benefit to the people of South Carolina.
Much of the Conservation Bank debate is, in fact, about public benefit. Some legislators define that narrowly. They want to invest only in lands that are publicly accessible, which tend to be smaller and more expensive. Others, including Audubon, emphasize the value of maintaining large blocks of natural land to protect wildlife and clean water, and to protect downstream communities from flooding.
Only if we maintain the Bank’s basic design — the three points listed above — can the Bank continue providing public benefit in this larger sense.
Reasons for Hope
And here’s why we’re hopeful that this broader understanding of public benefit will prevail:
- South Carolina’s conservation community is united on this issue.
- No one is working overtly against the conservation of our state’s most important historic and natural landscapes.
- We have a thoughtful and committed Governor who’s asking hard questions and seeking information from all sources.
- We have smart leaders in the Senate and the House working toward a consensus on how to make the Bank even more effective.
- The Bank is no longer vulnerable to criticisms it’s received in the past. It’s implemented suggestions made last year by the Legislative Audit Council to improve internal management, and a new Bank Board Chair has stepped in.
Get Ready to Act
The Conservation Bank is one of the best things that’s ever happened in South Carolina. It's made us the envy of other Southeastern states. Still, this story will likely remain a cliffhanger until the end of the legislative session in May. Please get ready to jump on upcoming requests to contact your senators and representatives on behalf of this outstanding program!