Virginia needs investment in conservation to spur the economy
Fully funding the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation for the first time would mean a major advance toward the Virginia we all need — one where our waters are clean, our lands are healthy and productive, and our rich history and culture are preserved.
Virginians recognize our natural landscape as part of our identity. We feel so strongly about protecting it — from our Blue Ridge Mountain streams and forests to our beaches and Chesapeake Bay — that we enshrined this shared responsibility in our state constitution.
Article XI of the Constitution of Virginia charges the leaders of our commonwealth to protect our vital natural resources for the benefit of our people. At least in principle, conservation has enjoyed broad bipartisan support in the General Assembly in recent years.
Funding, however, has been less reliable. Thanks to two recent studies, we have a better grasp of (1) how far Virginia’s investments fall below our needs and other states’ funding and (2) the economic returns that conservation can generate for communities.
For the first study, Fiscal Analytics examined Virginia state funding for natural resources over the past five years. Despite some landmark investments in land conservation and water quality — for which our legislators should be commended — the report finds that funding has been erratic, and the overall trend is downward.
Virginia spends about 1 percent of available revenues on natural resources — half of what other states invest on average. Virginians rightly take great pride in our scenic and historic lands and waters. But in our commitment to protect these resources, Virginia lags behind the pack instead of serving as the leader we can and should be.
Investing in conservation makes sound economic sense, as George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis and Urban Analytics shows in a case study of Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
State and federal agencies, The Nature Conservancy, and other partners have invested more than $100 million there since 1969, protecting well over 130,000 acres of barrier islands, marshes, forests, and farms.
As a result of these investments, the economic returns in 2016 alone are impressive.
Nature tourism, for example, generated $51 million in local spending and provided 655 jobs. Perhaps most striking, land conservation on the Eastern Shore has produced exceptionally clean waters to support a thriving aquaculture industry. In 2016, shellfish growers put $157 million into the local economy, employed 445 workers, and added $114 million to our regional gross domestic product.
The Eastern Shore’s robust natural environment and related economic activity boost our whole state. Virginia now ranks as the top oyster producer on the East Coast and the top hard-clam producer in the entire nation.
Obviously, not every Virginia community can grow clams and oysters, but the study has implications for every corner of our state, especially in what it reveals about the effectiveness of conservation easements.
Conservation easements offer a mutually beneficial tool for landowners and localities to protect natural areas, open space, and historic sites. At the same time, easements sustain traditional land uses such as farming, forestry, hunting, and fishing.
Both studies provide well-researched examples and numbers that can help our legislators make more informed decisions. Our General Assembly would be wise to heed this guidance as the annual debate over funding for land conservation unfolds in the coming days.
Specifically, several identical amendments seek to fulfill the promise of HB 1398. Passed in 2013, this pivotal legislation established a yearly target of $16 million for the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation. VLCF awards state grants to help purchase conservation easements, open spaces and parklands, historic sites, farms, forests, and natural areas.
The legislation was intended to increase state investments and direct grants toward the highest priorities, especially projects that would offer public access. The annual budget, however, stalled at $4.5 million. So, while grant requests have surpassed $123 million, only $51 million has been available to date.
The proposed amendments would raise 2020 funding to the original target of $16 million. Fully funding the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation for the first time would mean a major advance toward the Virginia we all need — one where our waters are clean, our lands are healthy and productive, and our rich history and culture are preserved.
Voicing your support for this investment will help ensure that our commonwealth remains a wonderful place to live, work, and raise a family. Please call, email or visit your delegate and senator and urge them to invest in conservation for our overall well-being and our economic vitality.
Wick Moorman is the former chairman and CEO of Norfolk Southern Corp. and more recently served as president and CEO of Amtrak. He is also board chair of The Nature Conservancy in Virginia.