The South Carolina Conservation Bank (Bank) is the state’s most important land protection tool and funding source for land conservation. We continue to advocate for full funding of the agency as well as educate elected officials and the public on the importance of a dedicated conservation funding source.
Since its inception in 2002, the Bank protected nearly 250,000 acres in 42 counties, demonstrating the ability to protect land resources at an efficiency rate of approximately $515 per acre. The Bank is funded by a portion of the state real estate transfer fee. Twenty-five cents ($.25) out of every one dollar and thirty cents ($1.30) generated by this fee is placed in a special trust fund solely for the use by the Conservation Bank. The Bank Board uses a competitive grant application process that includes consideration of natural resource values, other financial sources and opportunities for public access. The Bank provides grants for woodlands/wetlands, farmlands, urban parks, and historical and archaeological sites; 76% of the lands protected by the Conservation Bank offer either general or limited public access. Roughly 100,000 (48%) have full public use, including hunting and fishing and 60,000 acres (28%) can be used with landowner permission. Every acres provides a public benefit: keeping working farms and forests in production, maintaining water quality and quantity, reducing flooding, enriching wildlife habitat, providing outdoor recreation, protecting historic sites and attracting tourism, however, the availability of those dollars depends on the annual funding of the Bank.
Despite the Bank’s position as the most influential statewide land protection tool in SC, threats exist to its effectiveness and even its existence. The enabling legislation for the Bank includes language that requires that the Bank’s budget be zeroed out in years in which state agencies experience across-the-board cuts. The enabling legislation also included a sunset provision which would have forced the Bank to close its doors in 2013, but due to our lobbying efforts, legislation passed in 2012 to allow the Bank to remain open for another five years until 2018.
Recent Developments and Next Steps
The Conservation Bank is requesting full formulaic funding this fiscal year based on the BEA estimate recently released (in addition to development guidance received from the Governor’s office). This total currently amounts to $12.6M, and includes $9.8M as authorized in 2014 and the additional $2.8M that was not authorized in the final budget last session. In addition, the Conservation Bank is requesting the approval of 1 FTE position (without funding) to allow the Bank to adequately prepare for succession at the time Marvin chooses to retire. At the end of January, the House Ways and Means Natural Resources Subcommittee favorably passed the Conservation Bank budget request after hearing testimony from multiple groups who spoke to the benefits of the agency. We have made significant progress in these conversations in addressing concerns regarding public access on Bank-funded properties. In addition, the carry-over funding which was withheld from the Bank during the budget process last year and the year prior will be requested of the Other Funds Committee in early February; that funding totals $3.2M. We are working with agency staff, members of the Land Trust Alliance and conservation community on garnering support for full funding through continued outreach and education in the upcoming months. As always, we will continue to lobby to maintain full funding for the Bank during the 2015-2016 session and to prevent any further efforts to divert agency funding.
Additionally, in anticipation of the upcoming sunset date of 2018, our team has worked with Senator Chip Campsen (R-Charleston) and other interested stakeholders from the conservation community to draft legislation based on the recommendations from the Isolated Wetlands Taskforce. The proposed draft legislation would remove the “death clause,” increase funding for the Bank, and extend the life of the agency. Over the last year we have worked with our legislative champions and conservation partners to garner support to extend the life of the bank through a series of statewide meetings and visits to properties across the state that highlight the importance of the agency. We expect Senator Campsen to introduce this legislation in the upcoming month and will advocate for passage.