From sandy beaches and cypress-tupelo swamps, to longleaf pine savannas and everything in between, South Carolina’s beautiful landscapes attract visitors and businesses from around the world. Protecting and preserving these valuable spaces should be a priority for all citizens in the Palmetto State.
During my decades-long conservation career, I’ve learned that most South Carolina landowners have a deep and abiding land ethic. Rather than the promise of tax breaks, the families I’ve worked with have been motivated to protect land because of their reverence for the past, and their commitment to the future. They dreamed of keeping their working farm a farm, of ensuring that their rivers remained clean enough to fish in and of keeping wild spaces wild long into the future.
That same land ethic was apparent in the state Legislature’s decision to establish the state Conservation Bank in 2002. Since that time, the bank has helped protect nearly 300,000 acres of South Carolina’s most critical conservation lands and iconic landscapes to the tune of $150 million. That’s a huge value when you consider the $920 million that land is worth, and the invaluable public benefits it has bestowed: be they preserving historic features and cultural artifacts, protecting watersheds that reduce the effects of flooding and maintain clean water supplies for countless communities, saving land for hunting and recreation, or supporting breeding habitat for birds that depend on South Carolina for the survival of their species.
As executive director of Audubon South Carolina, whose mission includes the protection of the 400 bird species resident in our state, I know firsthand how a modest investment from the Conservation Bank helped grow Audubon’s Beidler Forest Center and Sanctuary — home to some of the best breeding habitat for prothonotary warblers and the world’s largest virgin cypress tupelo forest — to the 18,000 acres it is today. Bank funds have protected adjacent lands so that, collectively, more than 30 miles of a 34-mile stretch of floodplain habitat is permanently protected. It was Conservation Bank funds, too, that jump-started Audubon’s efforts and helped bring precious new federal dollars to the state that ultimately resulted in the protection of more than 9,000 acres of river corridors and forests in the Edisto River watershed.
With the Conservation Bank due to sunset in June of this year without legislative action, the future of the bank has been uncertain for some time. Thanks to a renewed sense of purpose and broad bipartisan support, the future of the bank looks more promising than ever, with the Senate recently passing an amended version of H.4727 after the House overwhelming approved the reauthorization measure in mid-February.
What has impressed me most about the process and conversations around the bank’s reauthorization is the thoughtfulness and leadership displayed by members of our General Assembly. I am particularly grateful to the House and Senate subcommittee members who worked tirelessly to understand and improve the bank over the last three years, and who welcomed the experience-based insights of Audubon and the larger conservation community in the process. We also appreciate the effort to expand eligible applicants to include counties, which are another critical player in the conservation arena.
At the end of the day, our elected officials have shown just as much commitment to protecting the health of our state’s rivers, forests and farmland as their constituents have. They too want to preserve South Carolina’s rich heritage and ability to prosper for their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s children too.
We are grateful to the Legislature for taking bold, confident steps forward in the name of conservation. Re-authorization of the Conservation Bank will be a decision and legacy our General Assembly, and our state, can truly be proud of for generations to come.
Sharon Richardson is executive director of Audubon South Carolina.