By Jane Preyer and Robert Bonnie
America’s public lands are among our most treasured assets.
Accordingly, conservation progress over the past century has been largely measured by how much land has been brought into public ownership and by how well this land has been managed.
And yet, over 70 percent of land in the contiguous U.S. and more than 85 percent of land in North Carolina is privately owned.
Our success in achieving many environmental goals depends on how private farmers, ranchers and forest owners manage their lands.
Most of our endangered species, for example, rely primarily on private lands for their habitat.
And nearly 88 percent of precipitation in the U.S. falls on private land before reaching streams, rivers and reservoirs, making private lands critical to clean drinking water.
The last 30 years have demonstrated that while laws regulating the use of private lands are necessary, they alone are not sufficient to protect private lands.
Indeed, restoring native ecosystems, reducing soil erosion or otherwise conserving private lands require the active and willing participation of landowners.
To succeed, we must create economic incentives that underwrite the costs of stewardship.
In North Carolina, we’ve proven that incentives work.
In 1995, the Safe Harbor program, which encourages landowners to restore endangered species habitat while providing relief from additional regulation, was started in the Sandhills to protect the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.
Safe Harbor now covers more than 2 million acres of private lands nationwide.
Tax incentives can also make a difference.
North Carolina formerly provided preferential property-tax treatment only to landowners who periodically harvest timber.
Last year, state lawmakers extended tax benefits to landowners who set aside their forests for conservation.
Far more needs to be done. Thanks to generous $5 million grants from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and Robert Wilson, an Environmental Defense board member and private investor, Environmental Defense is establishing the Center for Conservation Incentives to target existing incentive programs and to create new ones that benefit our landowners, wildlife, and water resources.
The center will work in partnership with others to develop model programs and policies in North Carolina and around the country.
By developing more effective conservation incentives, we can help landowners protect the natural resources that all Americans value.
Jane Preyer is regional director of the Raleigh, N.C., office of Environmental Defense. Robert Bonnie, an economist, is managing director of the Environmental Defense Center for Conservation Incentives in Washington, D.C.