Protecting land

By Merrill Wolf

DURHAM, N.C. — A coalition of environmental organizations has begun a major push to convince policymakers and the public that urgent action is needed to preserve North Carolina’s natural and historic treasures.

Invigorated by an $800,000 challenge grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem, the two-year-old Land for Tomorrow Coalition is undertaking a statewide education and advocacy campaign. Its ultimate goal is to expand public funding for preservation of farmland, wetlands, urban forests, historic areas and other natural resources threatened by development.

The coalition will spend the next year reaching out to community leaders and policymakers with its messages, pushing for a preservation bond referendum in 2006.

The group also hopes by January to raise $1.2 million for the public-education campaign, supplementing the Z. Smith Reynolds grant.

“North Carolina has one of the most extraordinary natural environments in the country,” says Kate Dixon, director of the coalition, “and people are interested in coming here” partly because of that environment.

Protecting natural resources is crucial not only for the environment itself but also for the economy, public health and quality of life, she says.

Between 1987 and 1997, North Carolina lost more prime farmland than all but two other states.

Every year, about 150,000 acres of forest, farmland and historic properties are swallowed up by new subdivisions, shopping malls and other so-called amenities.

This pattern reflects population growth – census figures released in April predict North Carolina will be the seventh-most-populous state by 2030 — as well as economic changes and increasing rates of consumption.

In 1990, for example, every 1,000 Triangle residents used 353 acres of land, compared to only 122 acres in 1950.

Under former Gov. Jim Hunt, the General Assembly created four trust funds dedicated to preservation of clean water, farmland, natural heritage areas, and parks and recreational areas, respectively.

And in 1999, legislators approved a plan to save one million acres in 10 years through conservation easements and other mechanisms.

But preservation has fallen short of objectives because of inadequate funding, according to the Land for Tomorrow Coalition.

For two years running, for instance, lawmakers have allocated no money to the Farmland Preservation Trust Fund.

The Clean Water Management Trust Fund typically receives grant requests far exceeding the $62 million available to it annually.

Overall, less than one percent of the state budget goes to land conservation, historic preservation and parklands combined.

The funding gap, according to the coalition, is about $200 million a year.

In a new report, the coalition recommends ways North Carolina can strengthen land conservation and historic preservation efforts.

Strategies include investing more money in conservation programs already proven to work; creating new, permanent funding mechanisms; and maximizing the impact of investment by leveraging local, federal and other matching funds.

For every dollar the state invests, Dixon says, $1.30 is available from other sources.

“Through a needs assessment and reaching out to other organizations, we’ve realized how important this is for the future economy and public health, in ways I hadn’t realized,” says Dixon, who formerly headed the Triangle Land Conservancy. “There’s a natural partnership that we’re really excited about.”

Many North Carolinians make their livings in ways that depend on natural resources, in industries such as agriculture, forestry and tourism, she says.

Public health depends not just on what people eat, but also on how much they exercise, she says, and creation of parks, greenways and other recreational areas helps to address problems such as the national obesity epidemic.

The coalition’s most innovative recommendation is the Green Jobs Initiative, which recognizes an intersection of state interests.

It would promote sustainable new economic opportunities and jobs building on natural, historic and cultural assets.

Examples of capital investment in “green infrastructure,” as the coalition calls it, include construction of trails and canoe launches in recreational areas and revitalization of historic downtowns.

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