SC Conservation Bank gets new lease on life

Conservation efforts in South Carolina got a big boost this week when legislators agreed to extend the life of the state's Conservation Bank another five years.

Under the law creating it in 2002, the bank would have folded at the end of 2013. The sunset clause was a result of initial skepticism about the bank. One senator, Lee Bright of Spartanburg, had held up the measure that would keep it going until 2018. Bright raised the same concerns brought up in 2002: Why should the state be involved in land conservation efforts?

The answer is that it provides critical support to local efforts to protect from development key tracts. And it helps provide a way for landowners to afford to keep their property undeveloped.

Its mission is to "improve the quality of life in South Carolina through the conservation of significant natural resource lands, wetlands, historical properties and archeological sites." Its objectives include protecting wildlife habitat and farm land; protecting water quality; enhancing public access to recreational areas; and preserving traditional uses, such as hunting and fishing.

The Senate approved the bill 38-2 Tuesday, and the House approved the Senate's changes 89-0 Thursday. We urge Gov. Nikki Haley to sign it into law.

Since 2004, when the Conservation Bank began its work, nearly 153,000 acres statewide have been protected, including 141,879 acres of forest and wetlands.

Here in Jasper and Beaufort counties, the state bank has helped protect more than 14,000 acres through purchases or conservation easements. That includes the McLeod and Chisolm Plantation tracts in northern Beaufort County and Lemon Island in southern Beaufort County.

Through fiscal year 2009, the bank has spent more than $80.6 million statewide, or about $527 per acre protected. But it has struggled financially in recent years. Its primary source of funding, a portion state document stamp fees, was hit hard in the economic downturn. In addition, the law creating the bank requires its funding to go to zero whenever across-the-board budget cuts are ordered. Fortunately, lawmakers came up with enough money to keep the office doors open.

The bank's financial prospects have brightened this year. With the economy improving, it could get about $8 million in funding.

Sens. John Courson and Chip Campsen say keeping the bank alive to protect special places in South Carolina helps the state's economy.

They're right. We look forward to seeing what conservation efforts bring us in the next five years.