The majority in control of North Carolina’s state legislature this year killed two amazingly successful land conservation programs. If North Carolina’s legislative leaders and the governor care about North Carolina’s natural heritage and environmental resources, they should reinstate both the Natural Heritage Trust 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 have been permanently protected over the past 30 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. Both of those programs were enacted by nearly unanimous, bipartisan legislative consensus.
North Carolina has been admired and emulated as the first state 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 30 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. Conservation easements on nearly 1,500 private properties have been donated. The extent of land voluntarily protected is equivalent to the average size of one of our counties. The total estimated value is over $1.3 billion. The cost to the state’s treasury in tax credits was only about 15 percent of the full value of that land, spread over three decades.
More than a dozen other states followed the North Carolina model, including Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia. Yet the Republican majority controlling the N.C. General Assembly repealed the state’s land conservation tax credit, effective at the end of this year. N.C. legislative leaders rebuffed recommendations by Virginia’s veteran speaker of its General Assembly (a Republican) in praise of maintaining North Carolina’s national model income tax credits. Conservationists across America are asking why and how this could have happened in the once-progressive Tar Heel state.
State tax credits were commonly used to encourage North Carolina residents to do things that might cost them personally but would serve greater public interests. But the majority party and governor have decided to halt most tax credits that rewarded people for serving the common good.
The 2013 legislature also went on to dismantle the state’s Natural Heritage Trust Fund, another national model admired across the country. The legislature consigned a remnant of that program inside the vastly reduced N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund. Establishing the N.C. Natural Heritage Trust Fund in 1987 was another example of bipartisan legislation enacted by near unanimous votes.
Financing for the Natural Heritage Trust Fund came from annual fees charged on personalized license plates 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 $2 state tax per $1,000 value of a sold property).
Over the last 25 years, the state’s Natural Heritage Trust Fund has awarded more than $335 million in grants to state agencies to buy more than 300,000 acres for state-owned parks, coastal reserves, nature preserves, forests, public trails, scenic rivers, wildlife management areas and historic sites.
To receive grants, state agencies had to demonstrate that the land was critical to the public interest and vital to our ecological diversity. The fund’s administrators consistently documented that the state’s land-protection needs far exceeded the available grant money (estimated needs have been twice the sum of available funds). Most of the grants leveraged additional funding from other sources or encouraged landowners to donate a portion of the actual value of their properties.
In the past, North Carolina elected leaders, including Republicans, who cared about the state’s natural beauty, its wildlife and celebrated environment. 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 defending the U.S. Land and Water Conservation Fund (financed by royalties on oil and gas wells) that has been the primary funding source over the past 50 years for America’s national, state and local parks. The national Land and Water Conservation Fund also is in jeopardy.
Have current Republican leaders in North Carolina determined that land and water and wildlife conservation, parks and greenway trails and preserves are no longer of concern to them or the public? Do they care about safeguarding the common public goods – clean and healthy lands, water and air?
If our legislative leaders and governor care about North Carolina’s natural environment, they should reinstate the Natural Heritage Trust Fund and the state’s income tax credits for land conservation.
Chuck Roe of Raleigh was founding director of the N.C. Natural Heritage Program (1976-92) and the Conservation Trust for North Carolina (1984-2002).