Strengthen Conservation Bank

Historic Morris Island was protected with S.C. Conservation Bank funds. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

Not everyone loves duck hunting. Or fishing. Or long walks through pristine woods.

But everyone can appreciate the state’s natural beauty and historic assets — and how conserving those assets contributes to the state’s quality of life. And to a sound economy.

A bill in the S.C. Senate would strengthen one of the state’s best tools for seeing that important conservation goals are met — the Conservation Bank. It deserves full legislative support.

Since 2004, the bank has done impressive work to conserve significant natural resource lands, wetlands, historical properties and archeological sites across South Carolina. In Charleston, for example, it was instrumental in assuring that Morris Island would never be developed.

But it has done so with a handicap. Legislation establishing the Conservation Bank requires it to be reauthorized periodically. And its funding is at risk every year of dwindling or disappearing altogether.

Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, sponsored the bill establishing the Conservation Bank, and he has tried to correct those two problems year after year with limited success.

While he has managed to have enough state money allocated to the bank to keep its doors open, he has not been able to ensure permanent, adequate funding. For some reason, there are legislators who oppose a modest guaranteed allocation to the bank, despite its proven record of achievement.

The bank is managed by two employees, making it the state’s smallest agency.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Campsen would ensure that the bank will be able to continue operating without periodic threats to its funding and its existence. A companion bill, with 50 sponsors, is to be introduced in the House.

So far, the Conservation Bank has helped preserve 266,657 acres by acquisition and through the purchase of conservation easements.

It has done so at a fraction of the actual value by working with landowners who want to ensure that farmland, woodlands and wetlands can be protected in perpetuity. Its work is essential for habitat, water quality and the state’s scenic landscape.

The bank received about $12 million from a portion of the sale of documentary stamps required for land transfers on a good year.

South Carolina is growing and attracting people from across the country, in part because of its natural beauty and recreational opportunities. Overdevelopment is threatening natural assets.

With legislative support, the Conservation Bank can continue to play a key role in protecting those assets for future generations.

For example, the Conservation Bank can help preserve the rare — and threatened — Carolina bays without the need to impose state regulations.

Locally, the bank also has provided funds for the Johns Island Angel Oak park, and a large tract near Awendaw as a wildlife habitat. It has helped maintain unspoiled mountain vistas in Greenville County and elsewhere in the western part of the state. And it is committed to the preservation of historic sites such as Camden’s Revolutionary War battleground and Morris Island.

The agency needs to be certain it will remain viable in order to work on other projects.

Members of the conservation community will meet with legislators today at breakfast to share with them the importance of the S.C. Conservation Bank.

Legislators should listen well and commit to making the agency permanent and to funding it adequately and predictably.