Opinion: The Rural and Critical Lands Program is an asset to Beaufort County
Spending dollars on conservation has saved us dollars on infrastructure, stormwater management, and the ongoing maintenance of sprawling development. Beaufort County has led the way with broadly supported, meaningful land protection.
Our conservation work, however, is far from over.
Beaufort County is home to half the salt marshes in South Carolina. It is also one of the fastest growing counties on the Atlantic coast. That tells us that we have an important asset to protect here and that conservation work is urgent.
Protecting land with conservation easements remains the most cost-effective way to sustain water quality and manage growth. Through the Rural and Critical Lands Program, Beaufort County should work with conservation partners and willing landowners to protect property on the large scale — weaving together habitat, river corridors and farmland to build a comprehensive greenbelt around our communities. That will ensure that growth is directed where we already have infrastructure and urban services, and the farms and forests that are iconic to the Lowcountry are protected.
Conservation easements in the rural areas of the county and along our rivers are the best way to do this. Fortunately, in 2014 county taxpayers provided $20 million to do just that. More than 11,000 acres have been secured through easement, establishing a foundation for protecting the remaining farms and forests that border our rural and suburban neighborhoods.
Besides preserving land, easements keep property on the tax rolls and give Beaufort a growth management tool that complements its comprehensive plan and other economic development efforts. We, and our conservation partners, are intent on ensuring this vital work continues and increases in the coming years.
Another way to protect our quality of life is to get outside and enjoy it.
Some of the land (an equally impressive 11,000 acres) protected by the Rural and Critical Lands program is available for public access — and what better time of year to enjoy it?
Thoughtful public use of this land — whether we hunt, fish, walk around or just sit and enjoy the fresh air — is an important part of our stewardship.
Accessible, well-planned public parks are a vital link between people and nature. In addition to increasing the acres protected through the program, we urge County Council and residents to engage in a public dialogue about our passive parks and jump-start a task force to lead our community in planning for these parks. That would provide needed oversight and direction in the management of these resources, increasing our ability to enjoy them.
Our quality of life depends on how we protect land and how we manage our parks. The Rural and Critical lands program allows us to do both.
When done well, we can have a protective greenbelt that allows for clean water and locally grown food, and park space in between connecting us all to the land. It’s an opportunity that cannot be missed.
Kate Schaefer is the South Coast Office Director of the Coastal Conservation League. She can be reached at [email protected]