Triangle Business Journal Nov. 10, 2006

State buying up land, but some say not enough

By: Patrick Hogan

RALEIGH - The state has asserted itself as a willing - and able - buyer when timber companies and other major landowners want to unload thousands of acres of valuable, but expensive to hold, land from their ledgers.

The legislature has funneled more than $670 million toward land purchases over the past decade, filling the inventories of land trusts and conservation agencies.

The state's attention to land preservation comes at a critical time, says Bill Holman, executive director of the North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund. Development claims an estimated 100,000 acres of North Carolina land each year, according to the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

This comes at a time when rising taxes and land values are prompting farmers, timber companies and other landowners to sell their acreage to the highest bidders - in many cases, developers.

Public and private conservation leaders say the state needs to step in and preserve enough land to protect the ecosystem. And, they believe, the state needs to do even more than it is.

"The land is never going to be cheaper," says Holman. "The state has made great efforts at conserving land in the past 10 years, but we need to increase the pace of our efforts to keep up with the growth."

For example, North Carolina's "Million Acre Initiative" - a state-sponsored effort to protect an additional 1 million acres of land by the end of 2008 - has fallen drastically behind its target pace. At the end of 2005, or seven full years into the project, private and public agencies across the state had protected 405,521 acres of land. The newly protected land will be tacked on to approximately 1.8 million acres of land, or about 6 percent of the state's total area, already protected by either the state or federal governments.

In a Sept. 1, 2006, report on the initiative to Gov. Mike Easley and the General Assembly, DENR's Office of Conservation and Community Affairs wrote: "At its current pace, our land protection efforts do not even match the rate at which open space is being lost in the state ... The primary barrier is the availability of public and private funding for new protection projects."

North Carolina's battle against recurring budget shortfalls - coupled with high-profile and costly agenda items such as $3.1 billion in higher education bonds in 2000 - have forced conservation efforts to take a back seat.

In the most recent legislative session, a coalition of conservation groups called Land for Tomorrow lobbied the General Assembly to put a billion-dollar bond referendum on the 2006 ballot for the purchase over five years of land and water resources. The legislation failed to pass, but a commission was set up to study options for conservation.

"We're trying to educate people to better understand that our economy is directly connected with the conservation of our state's natural resources and open space," says Richard Rogers, assistant secretary for DENR and a member of the Land and Water Conservation Study Commission. "Development is not going to stop, but there is a balance (with conservation) that needs to be found."

Despite criticism of conservation efforts, the amount of protected land across the state is on the upswing.

International Paper, one of North Carolina's largest landowners, has opted to sell off its land base because of mounting tax burdens and development pressure, says spokeswoman Amy Sawyer. Other landowners, including Georgia-Pacific, Duke Energy, Progress Energy and Alcoa, have sold swaths of land.

Less than two months ago, International Paper closed on the largest land protection deal in North Carolina history, selling 76,500 acres in 11 coastal counties to The Nature Conservancy. The state ultimately will take control of the land at a cost of about $80 million.

The International Paper land is permanently protected from development, but, in part to reduce the cost of the land, the state has agreed to allow the company to harvest certain sectors of it as long as new growth practices are followed. The arrangement is not unusual, say conservation officials.

"The idea behind it was, more or less, getting a purchase price ..." Rogers says. "They may timber it, but they won't develop it. It will all be permanently protected."

State-appropriated funding for land conservation is also on the rise through various programs, according to data compiled by DENR. The Clean Water Management Trust Fund has increased the amount of money it spends on land conservation - including outright land purchases, easements and development rights - from $14.75 million in 1997 to more than $68.25 million in 2005. The Parks and Recreation Trust Fund has boosted land conservation spending from about $3.43 million in 1997 to $18.7 million this year, and the Natural Heritage Trust Fund's 2006 spending has more than tripled to $26.63 million over the past decade. The Wetlands Restoration Program and the Ecosystem Enhancement Program, which was created in July 2003, spent a combined $25.84 million in fiscal 2005-2006.