Angel Oak

The Angel Oak on Johns Island was conserved in recent years with help from the South Carolina Conservation Bank. File/Provided

Over the last 14 years, the state Conservation Bank has preserved 294,126 acres of green space across South Carolina at a fraction of its actual monetary value. It has done so on a shoestring budget and without adequate support from the Legislature.

Indeed, its accomplishments have gone largely unrecognized by those legislators who want to either kill the state’s smallest agency (two employees) or make it part of another state agency.

The main criticism of the bank is that it has relied on purchasing conservation easements to protect habitat, endangered species, clean water and to halt urban sprawl. Unfortunately, the legislative critics have been given ammo by an untypically obtuse critique from the Legislative Audit Council, which raises management and funding issues.

Like the bank’s legislative critics, the LAC doesn’t fully acknowledge the public value that can be achieved at far less public expense by the purchase of conservation easements than by an outright purchase of the property.

Conservation easements ensure that critical habitat and traditional agricultural land uses can be preserved in perpetuity, at about an eighth the cost of buying the land. Meanwhile, the property is kept on the tax rolls.

The LAC criticizes the lack of public access on land for which conservation easements have been obtained. But at the same time, it acknowledges that the Conservation Bank has exceeded the goal set by the Legislature for public access every single year it has received state funding.

So where does the LAC get off criticizing the Conservation Bank on public access when it actually exceeds standards required by the Legislature? And why does the Audit Council recommend that the Conservation Bank be absorbed into the state Department of Natural Resources? It’s a bad idea.

The mission of the Conservation Bank is different than DNR’s. In conjunction with conservation groups like Ducks Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy, the bank works to preserve unspoiled private property that has a public value, usually through the purchase of easements to restrict its future development.

In some instances it helps acquire property — land adjacent to the Angel Oak, Morris Island and a park site at Bacon’s Bridge. Title to such property then goes to a public agency, such as DNR. The bank has assisted in the preservation of endangered Carolina Bays and has helped protect the ACE Basin, an internationally recognized preserve of more than 200,000 acres.

Some of the contributions of the Conservation Bank are detailed in a column on 2-B written by Burnie Maybank, formerly the director of the state Department of Revenue, and Ashley Demosthenes, president and CEO of the Lowcountry Land Trust.

And the bank has done its good work with a budget of generally no more than $12 million a year, from the sale of state documentary stamps required for land sales. Many years, it has received less.

The audit cites some areas where the Conservation Bank can heighten accountability, such as improving its criteria rating for purchases, and putting the minutes of its board meetings online. But on the whole, the audit fails to acknowledge the full contribution the Conservation Bank has made to South Carolina.

The bank deserves more support from the Legislature. It deserves to be reauthorized by lawmakers and provided more revenue to achieve its valuable goals. With tens of thousands of new residents moving into the state each year — many headed to the coast — the importance of the bank is more evident than ever.