By Todd Cohen
[Note: This was written for Triangle Community Foundation.]
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — As the Triangle’s population and economy continue to boom, the region is getting thirstier, and protecting its water supply is as essential to sustaining and improving its health and the quality of life for all its residents as making sure it has good roads, schools and other basic infrastructure systems.
What’s more, the job of conserving the land that the region’s supply of clean water depends on is interconnected with addressing other critical needs ranging from food and health to economic development and fighting poverty.
Yet land conservation often is perceived as a marginal issue, making it tougher to include environmental planning in the regional thinking and collaborative strategies the Triangle needs to continue to thrive.
That was the message at Triangle Donors Forum, a quarterly meeting of philanthropists that was held June 12 at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill and sponsored by Triangle Community Foundation.
“Many people think about conservation as something that happens ‘out there’ and not relevant to our lives,” Chad Jemison, executive director of Triangle Land Conservancy in Durham and a panelist at the Donors Forum, told about three dozen people who attended the session.
Jonathan Howes, senior public service fellow at the Institute for the Environment at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and retired director of UNC’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies, told the Donors Forum that land conservation issues need to be integral to policy discussions in the region.
Howes, who moderated the panel, said North Carolina traditionally has preserved its natural assets, in large part through trust funds created by state lawmakers, funding that recently “has declined or been eliminated because of the state of the economy and changing politics.”
The drop in public funds for conservation has created “an opportunity for private philanthropy to fill that gap,” he said.
Robin Jacobs, executive director of the Eno River Association in Durham and another panelist, said money was the biggest issue for conservation in the region.
While some funds are available to help with the actual purchase of land or easements for conservation purposes, she said, it is more difficult to secure the dollars needed for the “transactional” costs associated with the purchase of land and for the “stewardship” required to take an environmental inventory of the land and make sure it remains protected.
“None of us any more will accept donations for land or buy land unless we know where we’ll get the money to pay for” its stewardship, said Jacobs, who also is a partner in the Chapel Hill law firm Epting and Hackney.
Jemisen said conservation will play an increasingly critical role for the Triangle.
“There’s an incredible opportunity to make conservation more relevant to urban neighborhoods and metro areas, creating access and linking to health and poverty issues,” he said.
Triangle Land Conservancy, for example, is helping to develop urban gardens and provide access to food, trails and parks, he said.
Five years ago, Triangle Land Conservancy received 200 acres outside Carrboro through a bequest. Now, through partnerships, parts of that land are used for after-school and camp activities by a kindergarten and preschool, and as farmland by Burmese refugees.
Jemisen said the national Land Trust Alliance has land trusts in nearly every county in the U.S.
“Historically, at the state and federal level,” he said, “there’s strong bipartisan support for conservation.”
Jacobs said North Carolina has the biggest share of accredited land trusts in the U.S.
“We’re working hard and doing a good job,” often in partnership with local cities, towns and counties, she said.
Jemisen said a national survey by the Trust for Public Land found an 80 percent approval rating on the willingness to finance bonds or sales-tax increases for clean drinking water.
“The will is there,” he said. “We need to get an increase in political pressure locally.”
Howes, a former mayor of Chapel Hill and a former secretary of the state Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources, said raising public awareness and conveying a sense of the importance of conservation to public officials will be critical.
Conservation, he said, “ought not to be a red or blue issue.”
Jemisen said state funding for conservation likely will return over time in some form.
“But we can’t wait for that to happen,” he said.
Particularly as the region continues to recruit companies and talent, he said, “the pace of growth in the Triangle demands more immediate action.”