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N.C.’s siege on conservation

By Chuck Roe
Special to the Observer

The majority in control of North Carolina’s state legislature this year killed two amazingly successful land conservation programs. Their termination went unreported by the news media. If North Carolina’s legislative leaders and the governor care about North Carolina’s natural heritage and environmental resources, they should act to reinstate both the Natural Heritage Trust grant fund and the state’s income tax credits for land conservation.

More than half a million acres of North Carolina’s’ finest natural places in many hundreds of locations across the whole state have been permanently protected over the past thirty years when owners voluntarily agreed to conserve their land because of the state’s Conservation Tax

Credit and the N.C. Natural Heritage Trust Fund. But in their haste to discard programs and laws initiated by past Democrat-dominated state legislatures, the new Republican super-majority in the 2013 General Assembly session eliminated both North Carolina’s national model state income tax credits for land conservation and also the state’s stellar Natural Heritage Trust Fund.

Both of those programs were originally enacted by nearly unanimous, bipartisan legislative consensus. Conservation of North Carolina’s natural land and wildlife heritage was once the concern of ALL North Carolinians.

North Carolina has been widely admired and emulated as the first state in the nation to establish in 1983 an income tax credit deduction for landowners who voluntarily conserved important natural habitats, environmental resources, stream corridors, farms and forested land through donations of properties or by permanent conservation management agreements.

That 1983 legislation and the subsequent series of increased maximum tax credits were enacted with bipartisan sponsorship and nearly unanimous consensus votes. Over the next thirty years, private owners conserved 232,000 acres of North Carolina’s premiere natural habitats, forests, urban green spaces, and farms when they voluntarily donated their properties or development rights through perpetual conservation agreements.

As a direct product of our state’s tax incentives, conservation easements on nearly 1,500 private properties across the state have been donated. That extent of land voluntarily protected is equivalent to the average size of one of our counties. The total estimated value of those donations is over 1.3 billion dollars. The cost to the state’s treasury in tax credits was only about 15 percent of the full value of those land conservation donations, spread over three decades.

More than a dozen other states followed the North Carolina Model, including Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia. That had no effect on the Republican majority controlling the N.C. General Assembly, which in July repealed the state’s land conservation tax credit, effective at the end of this year. NC legislative leaders rebuffed recommendations by Virginia’s veteran speaker of its state General Assembly (a Republican) in praise of maintaining North Carolina’s national model income tax credits for land conservation.

Conservationists across America are asking why and how could this have happened in the once progressive North Carolina.

The 2013 Legislature went on to dismantle and terminate the state’s Natural Heritage Trust Fund, another national model that had been admired across the country. The legislature consigned a remnant of that land conservation program inside the vastly reduced N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund. Establishment of the NC Natural Heritage Trust Fund in 1987 was another example of bipartisan legislation enacted by near unanimous consensus votes.

Financing for the Natural Heritage Trust Fund came both from annual fees charged on motorists who voluntarily buy personalized license plates for their autos, and from a fraction of the state’s excise fees on sales of land for development (a tiny 0.25 percent of the second of the two dollars state tax per $1,000 value of a sold property).

Over the last 25 years the state’s Natural Heritage Trust Funds were used by its appointed trustees to award more than $335 million dollars in over 530 grants to state agencies to purchase more than 300,000 acres of land for state-owned parks, coastal reserves, nature preserves, forests, public trails, scenic rivers, wildlife management areas, and historic sites.

In the past, North Carolina elected leaders including Republicans cared about the state’s natural beauty, its wildlife and celebrated environment. Why no longer? Surely some Republicans still care about protecting our state’s extraordinary natural beauty and spectacular environment.

Where are the champions for land conservation in North Carolina? An exceptional example has been U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, who merits accolades for his defense of the U.S. Land and Water Conservation Fund that has been the primarily funding source over the past 50 years for America’s national, state and local parks.

Do current Republican leaders in North Carolina care about safeguarding the common public goods – clean and healthy lands, water and air? If our state’s legislative leaders and governor care about North Carolina’s natural environment, they should act to reinstate both the Natural Heritage Trust grant funds and the state’s income tax credits for land conservation.

Chuck Roe is founding director of the N.C. Natural Heritage Program (1976-92) and the Conservation Trust for North Carolina (1984-2002)
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