By Thomas Farmer, Director of Government Relations, The Nature Conservancy in Georgia
From the mountains to the coast, in city parks and rural fields and pastures, land plays a critical role in Georgia’s economy and quality of life. As the foundation of major industries like tourism, agriculture and forestry, there is no question that land is one of Georgia’s most valuable assets, but it is also a finite resource that must be used wisely.
Fortunately, our state has benefitted from a legacy of elected leaders who agreed that land conservation is important, including Governor Nathan Deal, under whose leadership more than 30,000 acres of land have been protected in a clear demonstration of his commitment to wildlife management and conservation.
Governor Deal and legislators from all parts of Georgia understand that land acquisition is an investment in the long-term success of our state, and they should be commended for the appropriations included in annual budgets during his tenure. Yet a reliance upon the annual appropriations process makes it difficult to execute long-range conservation plans or address critical needs in a timely manner. This is why The Nature Conservancy, as part of a coalition of conservation organizations, is advocating for the passage of the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act, which would create an estimated $40 million in reliable, annual funding for land conservation by dedicating a portion of the existing sales tax on outdoor recreation equipment.
Why is this needed? Because there are very real and significant land acquisition needs that if not addressed quickly could threaten the growth of Georgia’s economy.
Of a particularly critical nature is the protection of the gopher tortoise, our official state reptile, which is in danger of being listed as an endangered species. To thrive, the gopher tortoise relies on access to dry, sandy lands where they can dig deep burrows that provide shelter for hundreds of other animals, some of which are also threatened species. By protecting their habitat and keeping the gopher tortoise off of the endangered list, Georgia can avoid federal oversight, regulation and restrictions that would significantly impact economic development and hamper the state’s annual $23.6 billion forestry and $74 billion agriculture industries. Strategic land conservation designed to protect the gopher tortoise will allow Georgia to maintain control of its own destiny while protecting this threatened species and the landscapes to which it belongs.
Another immediate need is the protection of lands buffering Georgia’s military installations, which contribute as much as $20 billion to our annual economy. These buffers allow the military to conduct their necessary base operations while maintaining the quality of life of the surrounding community. As the Georgia House of Representatives Military Affairs Study Committee heard this summer, another round of base closures could come as soon as 2019 and we need to do all that we can to protect Georgia’s installations from being listed for closure or realignment. Ensuring they have appropriate and protected land buffers is an important part of that equation.
Failing to invest in gopher tortoise habitat protection and military base buffers now could negatively impact our economy in the future.. A sustained and reliable land conversation program is also important to the continued growth of Georgia’s $59 billion annual tourism industry, which relies on access to the state’s beautiful barrier islands, unparalleled hunting and fishing destinations and scenic mountains. Public lands are critical to the state’s annual $23 billion outdoor recreation industry, a sector recently recognized by the United States Congress as an essential component of the nation’s economy. Access to parks and recreation lands and enjoyment of their natural beauty is part of what makes our state a place where people want to live.
As a new session of the General Assembly convenes this week, we plan to continue our advocacy for dedicated funding for land conservation. We believe the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act is a solution that makes both economic sense for our state and practical sense for our environment. It is time to take meaningful action to protect our state’s lands, as well as the people and industries that rely upon them, before it’s too late.