The state Conservation Bank is the smallest agency in South Carolina’s state government, but it produces big results. The bank, managed by a staff of two and guided by a citizens board that serves without pay, has successfully preserved 191,000 acres of important habitat, historic properties, archeological sites and scenic landscapes in its 11-year existence.
The results are evident across the state, and finally, the state Legislature is beginning to better appreciate the importance of the Conservation Bank.
For example, a proposal to divert Conservation Bank money for beach renourishment was defeated this year in the House Ways and Means Committee, in recognition that the bank has a far broader conservation role throughout South Carolina.
That includes the preservation of 2,188 acres of Carolina Bays and 192 miles of river frontage. It includes the purchase of property for the public’s recreational enjoyment, including 1,300 acres of urban parks.
The bank has been able to achieve such dramatic results with modest resources by leveraging funds from private conservation groups and local governments that share the bank’s goals. While the bank has helped purchase key properties, like Morris Island, it has been able to stretch its limited funding by purchasing easements from private property owners to ensure that farm acreage and pristine coastal property aren’t lost to development.
The average cost per acre of all its conservation efforts is less than $540, a fraction of the land’s actual value.
“It’s been very effective and a model to the rest of the country in how to use limited funding for conservation,” says Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, the bank’s primary advocate in the Senate.
Sen. Campsen notes that there are still legislative naysayers who contend that conservation isn’t a core function of government. To which, he cites Article XII, Section 2 of the South Carolina Constitution, which specifically cites the “conservation of its natural resources” as a primary responsibility of the state. It’s an unassailable argument.
Next year, the bank can expect to get full funding from its quarter-share of the revenue generated by the documentary stamps required in land transactions. That is expected to net $9.5 million.
Meanwhile, the bank eventually stands to obtain $5 million as mitigation from Georgia as part of the settlement of the dispute with the S.C. Maritime Commission over the deepening of the Savannah River. Michael McShane, former Department of Natural Resources Board chairman, played a key role in gaining that valuable concession as a member of the Maritime Commission.
It also will provide $5 million each to DNR and to a Ducks Unlimited trust fund, all for conservation work in the Savannah River basin. Mr. McShane, who was appointed last week to the Conservation Bank Board, will bring experience and commitment to the post.
In 2012, legislative supporters of the Conservation Bank successfully extended its charter another five years. But they were unable to eliminate the poison pill provision that has caused regular funding to the bank to be eliminated when the state falls on hard economic times and revenues don’t match budget projections.
Then, funding is diverted from the bank to the General Fund, where it is used to support larger agencies that actually have far more capacity to handle a budget hit.
It’s a bad way to do business.
As a consequence, during lean years, the Conservation Bank has been able to keep the lights on only with direct appropriations obtained through hard-fought efforts of legislators who support the bank. Convincing the Legislature to remove that singularly unfair provision is an essential goal.
The good work of the Conservation Bank is the best argument for ensuring its permanence as well as a steady source of funding.