Guest Editorial: John Fussell
[John recently retired from Crossroads' Board of Directors, but continues to be active as an advisor to the Board on wetland issues. He now serves on the Board of the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust. John is a professional consultant on wetlands evaluation and is also a highly regarded expert on birds residing and passing through eastern Carolina…Ed.]
Protecting the Environment through Land Trusts and Similar Organizations—Acquisition of Lands and the Use of Conservation Easements
Sometimes discussions about the role of land trusts in protecting the environment evolve into discussions—or arguments—about the relative value of the acquisition of lands (or granting of conservation easements) as opposed to enactment/enforcement of adequate environmental regulations. This issue should not be considered as an either/or choice. Certainly, the acquisition of selected lands for the goal of preservation (or at least the preservation of certain values) should not be considered as a substitute for the existence of adequate environmental regulations. Rather, these two ways of protecting the environment should be seen as complementary.
What are some of the limitations of environmental regulations that can be addressed in some instances by actions carried out by Land Trusts and similar conservation organizations (acquisition of land, acquisition of conservation easements)?
--Many types of environmental problems are not addressed or are addressed only marginally by existing environmental regulations. For instance, in regard to private land, environmental regulations are essentially of no value in protecting most types of rare and declining species, and rarely address the major reason most rare species are declining—habitat loss. To preserve these types of environmental values, it is mandatory that land be acquired or protected by an adequate conservation easement.
--Even in regard to environmental laws that the public generally perceive as being quite stringent, the environmental effects of such laws may not address many environmental concerns. For instance, the public generally perceive that wetlands—all types of wetlands—are stringently protected by law. However, even in those cases where wetlands are indeed protected from destruction by filling, the regulations may not prevent the destruction of habitat by excavation, logging, or other means. In some cases, wetlands that are not directly destroyed by a development project may nevertheless be destroyed over the long run. An example is the pocosin wetland that was set aside when the Cypress Bay Plaza in west Morehead City was built several years ago. This remaining, isolated tract is now much degraded and it is doubtful if it would qualify as being a wetland today.
Environmental regulations have certainly resulted in some successes in slowing down—and reversing to some degree in some instances—water quality declines. However, continuing to address water quality degradation in the face of increasing population pressures will be an ongoing challenge. Perhaps more effective environmental regulations and engineering solutions will be able to address water quality problems in the future, even as the human population of the coastal zone continues to increase. Or, perhaps not. Perhaps the only truly productive estuaries/portions of estuaries in the future will be those in which a significant portion of the adjacent land is protected such that there is no development or very minimal development. For instance, the recent acquisition of the vast North River Farms by the N.C. Coastal Federation offers a very real potential for maintaining and even improving water quality of a portion of the North River estuary. This is because a large portion of the watershed will be protected from development and will be available for management actions that are likely to result in less surface runoff from agricultural lands. Even if environmental regulations/engineering solutions can be successful in the future, we are likely to need sections of estuaries having largely undeveloped shorelines for baseline data by which to guide restoration of degraded estuaries.
Perhaps one of the most positive aspects of acquiring land/conservation easements is that it is well regarded by a majority of the public. Many people who bristle at the thought of any type of environmental regulation being imposed on their land by any government may quite willingly consider selling the land to a land trust or entering into a conservation easement. In some cases, persons owning environmentally sensitive land may not even want to develop the land, but nevertheless are compelled to realize some financial benefit. Further, this kind of positive opinion often is contagious. When one person decides to sell to a land trust (or enter into a conservation agreement) environmentally sensitive land, this often results in others being willing to make a similar commitment.
Another relative advantage of acquiring land or protecting it through conservation easements is that environmental laws are subject to being weakened through the political process. Actually, such weakening occurs rather often. Even when the laws themselves are not actually weakened, political pressure may result in their virtual abandonment as a result of a lack of enforcement.
A recent major land trust acquisition in Carteret County was the acquisition of 800 acres of land along Pettiford Creek by the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust in 2003. This acquisition preserves land along two miles of Pettiford Creek. In that the opposite side of this section of creek was already under Federal ownership (Croatan National Forest), it is now a certainty that at least this upper section of Pettiford Creek will continue to have excellent water quality in the future. Much of the acquired land consists of medium to high quality longleaf pine forest, which is habitat for numerous rare and declining plant and animal species. Acquisition of the land also provides the opportunity for the restoration or partial restoration of a very rare type of wetland habitat, called seepage slope. Further, the Pettiford Creek property will be an important buffer for a section of the southern Croatan National Forest. The southern Croatan is the most important section of the Croatan for rare species, but it is the section that is most threatened with degradation from development on adjacent lands.
Again, I want to stress that I do not think that activities of land trusts and enactment/adequate enforcement of environmental regulations should be seen as either/or priorities. Both activities have their strong points and should be seen as complementary.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE MORE ENVIRONMENTALLY SENSITIVE LAND AND MORE OPEN SPACE PROTECTED IN CARTERET COUNTY?
If so, then you should join the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust. In addition to acquiring the Pettiford Creek tract cited above, the Land Trust is now working hard to acquire another tract (about 100 acres in size) that borders the south Croatan National Forest. This tract harbors endangered species and will be an important buffer to the Croatan. Additionally, the Land Trust has been investigating the possibility of protecting another three tracts within the county. Although the Land Trust is doing much conservation work in Carteret County, only a few Carteret County residents are members of the Land Trust. Carteret County residents are urged to join the Land Trust for 2004. The minimum membership fee is $30. You can join by visiting the web site at coastallandtrust.org or by writing North Carolina Coastal Land Trust, 3806-B Park Avenue, Wilmington, NC 28403.
We have run into some problems when trying to send out e-mail alerts of significant happenings. We always have addresses in our file that prevent the message going out—especially troubling and time-consuming—and also get a significant number of “Unknown user” messages for incorrect e-mail addresses. I realize that a lot of folks are changing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) but, unfortunately, when you change you are lost to our mailing list unless we get a message that you have a new address.
There are two things that you can do that would save us a lot of time and trouble. If you change your ISP, drop us a line. Whenever you renew your membership, put your current e-mail address on the membership blank.
If you are a member of Crossroads and did not get an e-mail notice of the County Land Use Plan Information Meeting scheduled for November 10 from me, we do not have your correct address. Please let me know at email@example.com and we will be glad to correct our e-mail list. Thanks for your cooperation. And as long as you have my address and are writing, let me know what we are doing right or wrong and how we can be more effective. We are always glad to hear from you. Thanks.
Take Note: Dues remain at $10 per year or $100 for a lifetime membership only until Dec. 31 of this year. Next year they are $15 per year or $150 for a lifetime membership. If you do not know if your dues are paid, look at the mailing label on this newsletter.
Many thanks to new life members, Charlie and Bernard Blanchard.
Carteret County Land Use Plan Update
The Planning Commission is holding a
Community Forum to get public input on
the new plan.
6:00 pm December 15, 2003
Commissioner's Board Room,
Administration Bldg. Beaufort