The S.C. Conservation Bank faced the kind of storm clouds that can make an organization seem doomed: an audit that criticized decision-making and budgeting at the smallest state agency, even as a “sunset date” loomed when the bank either had to be reauthorized by the S.C. Legislature or cease to exist.
“Anytime you’re sitting in April with a state agency that’s going to sunset in June and the work’s not done, yes, you get a little nervous,” says John Tynan, executive director of the Conservation Voters of S.C., which advocates for environmental causes, including the bank.
Instead of being sunk, the agency has been revised and given new life, its supporters say. It now enjoys permanent status in state law and a regular, albeit significantly reduced, budget allocation instead of spending every year with its funding up in the air.
The bank was scrutinized in the audit by lawmakers who were concerned about its process for selecting sites to receive grants and for its level of spending. Consequently, new requirements on the selection and budget processes have been put in place.
As a result of the legislation to redefine its function, the bank is well-situated to continue its role working with landowners to protect South Carolina’s special natural locations, according to its backers. “We think the bank is stronger and better than ever before,” says Doug Harper, chairman of the board at the bank.
The bank’s time in the legislative tussle had a bright side, according to Sen. Chip Campsen, who has been its chief legislative sponsor since it was launched in 2002. It won more lawmakers to its side as debates continued, which is rare in State House politics. “Mostly the process was about accruing more supporters rather than losing them,” he says.
Preserving Special Places
The bank was launched in 2002 to help protect privately owned natural sites considered environmentally significant from looming development or possible future construction. Those sites have often been adjacent to state parks or other areas protected by law. The bank enables entire natural areas, both public and private, to be spared from development.
“Bears and deer and ducks — they don’t understand where property lines stop or start,” John says.
Determining the areas that are worth conserving becomes a key question. That answer will not be the same for everyone, John says. Some will think of great places to hunt or fish, while others will think of wetlands that filter water and provide habitat. “The bank doesn’t work with a single definition of what’s worth preserving but simply seeks to find the best projects,” he shares.
It also has worked with many different partners, ranging from the Audubon Society to utility companies. The bank has helped preserve 300,000 acres of the state’s natural land for a fraction of what purchases would have cost. The partners and conservation proposals that the bank has supported have ranged much further than Chip expected when he drafted the legislation, such as one project near Shaw Air Force Base involving the U.S. Defense Department. “I never had any idea it would be used for that purpose,” he says.
Instead of buying properties, the bank gives grants, asking land trusts and other organizations to submit proposals, and then funding what it considers most appropriate. By helping to finance conservation easements that keep properties from being developed, the bank preserves land without buying it outright, making the process more cost-effective. For the property owner, forgoing the future development value of the land also brings tax benefits.
“The beauty of the bank is that the local experts put the projects together,” Doug says.
The competitive process ensures that only strong projects receive funding and that the bank’s share of the cost is relatively small, frequently 20 percent or less. It’s the most efficient way to operate, Chip says. “It’s a free market approach to protecting entire ecosystems.”
Among the Midlands sites that have been protected with bank support are three easements totaling almost 13,000 acres along the Wateree River in Sumter, a project backed by the Congaree Land Trust. The easements protect 7 miles of the riverside from development while being managed for hunting and fishing by the owners and providing three boat docks that are open to the public.
Also in the Midlands, the bank partnered with the Defense Department to keep areas undeveloped on the perimeter of Shaw Air Force Base. Preserving natural areas from encroaching development in flight paths helps keep the base viable when Congress is prioritizing facilities to close in order to save money.
Around the state, the Conservation Bank has also funded the preservation of the Angel Oak on Johns Island in the Lowcountry and areas next to Paris Mountain State Park in the Upstate, in addition to other projects.
Audit Brings Changes
Because of concerns among some lawmakers about the bank’s operations, the Legislative Audit Council was asked to evaluate the agency’s effectiveness in meeting its mission.
The council’s 2017 report included several criticisms of the way the bank had been operating and recommended changes to several procedures. It found:
- The application process was considered to have few benchmarks and no clear, written criteria about how large the grants for projects should be. The bill reauthorizing the bank spells out more specific criteria for determining whether an area has significant attributes worthy of conservation.
- With a fluctuating and unpredictable annual budget, the bank was creating grants that were not covered by guaranteed revenue. This led to the bank having liabilities that exceeded its current funds. The new authorizing legislation restricts such spending levels unless approved by a special review, and it requires an annual audit be performed and presented to state leaders.
- The report criticized some of the bank’s grant allocations for lacking public access to the protected land. Such access was highlighted as one of the criteria for a project’s evaluation in the legislation that reauthorized the bank.
The legislation to extend the bank’s existence was passed unanimously by both the House and Senate and signed in July by Gov. Henry McMaster, who welcomed its new focus and reduced budget. He called the bank an important part of preserving the kind of natural areas that bring visitors to South Carolina. “It’s very important that we realize that we are given gifts, and we have to preserve them,” he said at the signing. “This is a step in that direction.”
Issues raised in the report were addressed in the legislation to extend its existence, Doug says. The discussion, while sometimes fierce, was about the proper role for the bank and its size going forward.
No one thought that the bank should not exist; the debate was over proper function. “It was basically an ongoing conversation for the past 24 months about what the bank would look like, how its structure should be modified,” says John of Conservation Voters.
While the bank was reauthorized, it is much smaller than it was when funding was higher, reflecting concerns about how active it has been and how well the money has been spent. It is receiving dedicated state funds of $5.5 million, down from earlier funding that exceeded $20 million for some years.
Gov. McMaster did veto more than $200,000 in operations money intended for the bank, which has been reduced in staff to just two employees. “The Conservation Bank has a reduced role and a reduced budget. It’s contradictory to provide more money and staff to operate it,” gubernatorial spokesman Bryan Symmes said during the veto process.
The reauthorization requires the bank to create a conservation map of the state, which Chip says will serve as a guide to set priorities for projects. The bank’s involvement, however, will not be limited only to spots highlighted on the map.
“It opens the door to long-term conservation planning in South Carolina,” says Sharon Richardson, executive director for Audubon South Carolina and a vice president of the National Audubon Society.
The Bank’s Future and South Carolina’s
As its first job, the bank is hiring an executive director for the agency, a post that has been vacant since the beginning of 2018. In the future, the bank will seek to show that the Legislature should continue to support its work and even add more dollars to its grant process for more conservation using its revised criteria, its backers say. Among the needs, Chip says, is more legal help for the bank. An agency involved in so many complex real estate transactions should have an attorney although neither of the two budgeted positions is an attorney slot.
The current budget authorization spread over the entire state, even leveraged with private funds, is not enough to meet the need (or demand) for land conservation, Sharon says. More generally, Chip believes that South Carolina’s fast rate of growth requires a vigorous land conservation movement as a response. He points first to cities in the Northeast and Midwest that put quality of living aside in favor of growth and now find themselves with damaged environmental assets. “I don’t want to become Newark, New Jersey,” Chip says.
South Carolina, among the top 10 states for added population, continues to experience strong growth, which comes with pressure on natural resources. “Population growth is vastly changing our landscape faster than we can protect and preserve for future generations those special places that attract people to our state in the first place,” Sharon says.
Chip points to Florida’s explosive growth after World War II as a cautionary note. During the 1940s, Florida and South Carolina had similar populations, so close that both states had six U.S. House seats. Now Florida has grown in population to 21 million people, and it merits 27 U.S. House seats, while South Carolina just added its seventh this decade.
Florida experienced unprecedented growth without a strong plan in place to protect vital natural areas. The state launched a preservation program that tried to buy land parcels outright, but the cost made the program only marginally successful, with small parks preserved here and there.
“It’s better to have a program that finds partners to offer grants to support the best proposals, rather than spend so much to buy out smaller parcels,” Chip says. “It’s much more efficient that way.”
South Carolina has grown to 5 million in population, but Chip sees pressures building across the state that are similar to those in Florida. He was worried about the Lowcountry when the bank was launched in 2002, and he sees many other regions under population pressure now. To offset that strain requires increased conservation measures to protect the quality of life that makes so many people want to live and work here in the first place, he says, adding, “You don’t have to pay people to move to paradise.”