Legislature boosts conservation plan

Before the 2008 General Assembly left town Friday, lawmakers continued their commitment to preserving green space here. They deserve credit for keeping the state's financial resources behind an admirable effort to save a million acres within a decade.

That campaign isn't likely to succeed, based on high land costs and rapid development. But it pushes the state closer to the long-term goal and serves as a model for private conservation efforts as well.

The new state budget, signed last week by Gov. Mike Easley, provides $55 million in new conservation spending for four initiatives to preserve land and protect water and air quality. That sum includes $50 million in certificate of participation bonds for the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund and the N.C. Natural Heritage Trust Fund. It provides $4 million for the Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund and $1 million for the N.C. Community Development Initiative.

Land for Tomorrow, a statewide coalition supporting land preservation, said the money, in addition to $100 million already in the budget for the visionary Clean Water Management Trust Fund, is an important factor in keeping the state green. “Legislative support for conservation funding is essential to sustaining our family farms, working forests, state parks and scenic vistas, which protect our natural heritage,” said Reid Wilson of the Conservation Trust of North Carolina.

The legislature also extended an important tax break to property owners who protect their lands for conservation and wildlife habitat. That's the same tax relief previously available only to property owners who've managed their land for forestry or agricultural purposes.

Until the legislature's recent action, those who manage their land to protect water quality, open space or habitat were not eligible for a lower property tax rate – and thus paid higher taxes than those who managed their land for farming or timbering. That financial disadvantage put pressure on land owners to sell to developers. It is one reason among many that the state is losing 100,000 acres of forest and farmland each year.

The new law requires landowners to develop a wildlife habitat conservation plan with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to show how it will provide habitat. It limits a county's potential tax base loss by restricting enrollment in the program. And it would require owners who leave the program to pay five years' worth of back taxes, which should discourage participation by short-sighted owners looking only for a quick savings.

Members of the General Assembly are often criticized for their failures, but it's important to note that legislators have consistently shown a desire to protect the state's lands and preserve open space for the future. They deserve our thanks.