Why should I care about conservation?

February 25th, 2020
By Raleigh West

Raleigh West, Executive Director of the South Carolina Conservation Bank, offered remarks at the 2020 ForeverGreen Annual Awards Luncheon. Read on for his thoughts about why everyone is a conservationist — they just may not realize it yet — why South Carolina is recognized as a leader in conservation, and how we can chart a path forward that ensures our natural resources are protected for future generations.

Good morning, everyone! My name is Raleigh West and I’m the executive director for the South Carolina Conservation Bank

First, thank you for having me. I spent four years in Spartanburg over at Wofford College and enjoy every opportunity I have to get back to this part of the state. 

Why should I care about conservation? That’s a question I get asked frequently. To that I respond, “Everyone cares about conservation, they just might not realize it until that one property that is near and dear to them — one that is special to them and their families, the one they thought would always be there — becomes at risk.” Then they want to do something about it. They want to try to save it. That drives them to become conservationists.

For me, that ethic bore out of a childhood experience with my father on a property off of Jedberg Road in Moncks Corner, South Carolina. It was a beautiful tract of land, about 200 acres, that had rolling sunflower fields on it and an oak-lined driveway that led to a clapboard farmhouse. It was a quintessential Lowcountry farm. 

My father leased it as a duck club. We had a lot of really special memories there, father-and-son bonding that you don’t experience in any places except for the field. One of those memories I have is of us pulling off on the side of the road on the way to school — this property was right along the highway on my way to school — and we would pull off to count the number of birds on the wire in the mornings in the fall. It was a special place for us.

Years later, when I was coming back home from Wofford College, I drove past it and didn’t recognize the place. It had been leveled. The oaks had been cut. The farmhouse had been demolished and the fields had been turned under. I remember thinking then — and it still strikes me today — I lost a little bit of my childhood when that property converted to another use. I also remember thinking, “Man, I hope this doesn’t happen to everywhere I care about.” 

It was that personal tie to the land and the visceral sense of loss that came with its conversion that drove me into a career in conservation and ultimately where I am today at the helm of the Conservation Bank. 

So what is the South Carolina Conservation Bank? We are a state agency that issues grants to groups like Upstate Forever to purchase interest in real estate for conservation purposes. Since 2002, we’ve issued $161 million worth of grants — 325 projects — that have collectively saved 335,000 acres of land. 

Here in the Upstate, some of our grants have funded iconic projects like Stumphouse Mountain, Jones Gap State Park, Lake Conestee Nature Park, Nine Times Preserve, and scenic vistas looking on to Table Rock.

One of the first points I want to make is that these grants we are issuing are not just green on a map, so to speak. These are properties that, protected in their natural state, go to the very heart of what it means to experience living in the Upstate. After all, can you imagine an Upstate without Table Rock or Stumphouse Mountain or Jones Gap State Park and many other properties that have been conserved? 

As I was reflecting on the remarks I wanted to make today, I thought I would leave you with three main points.

First, thanks to the vision of the Wyche family and others, South Carolina is a leader in conservation. When you look at the Blue Ridge Escarpment and its 100,000 acres of protected land, the Ace Basin in the Lowcountry and its 300,000 acres, these are models for how to achieve landscape-scale conservation. Other states are looking at us as an example of how to do that. They want to replicate those examples in their own states. 

We are very much a leader in conservation, but what I think is as important as the land protection outcomes is the financial efficiency with which we are carrying out that mission. For instance, last year the Conservation Bank issued $10.5 million in grants to purchase $71.4 million worth of real estate. That’s a leverage ratio of 14 cents on the dollar. 

Now, how do we do that? Through collaboration and partnership. Our state agencies like the Department of Natural Resources and Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism work with federal agencies, local governments, nonprofits like Upstate Forever, and perhaps most importantly, landowners, to all leverage our resources so that we can secure properties that otherwise, independently, we could not. 

If you look at the landscape-scale conservation outcomes coupled with financial efficiency, South Carolina is setting the bar for conservation. Folks are looking at us as leaders — it’s a point of pride I think we should all have for South Carolina. 

Secondly, business interests and conservation go hand-in-hand. There is a myth they do not, but that is far from the truth. After all, we need good, functional communities with housing, schools, retail, and economic centers. We need functional infrastructure to get around. But I’d also argue we need access to the great outdoors — places to take family hiking and places to take your kids hunting and fishing. We need access to unspoiled landscapes and the clean water and clean air that arise out of them being protected.

In a globally competitive economy — which we have now — what’s going to separate this state and region from others is its ability to attract and retain highly specialized, highly educated workforces. And where are those workforces and businesses going to want to locate? Where there is a high quality of life. To that end, conservation and business are certainly aligned. 

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is this: The future of land use in the Upstate will be determined at the local level. Land use is a local business. County plans trump regional plans. Town annexation laws trump county plans. And ultimately it is landowners who decide what will happen to their properties. 

As I look out in this room, I see a wonderful representation of the business and civic leadership of the Upstate. It will largely be y’all in this room that determine how we grow. 

So how do we grow? I see two roads we can go down… One leads to a scary future, and it’s reflected in a word I hear more and more frequently as I travel this part of the state: Charlanta. That is the notion that Charlotte and Atlanta are going to merge as one giant megalopolis with a sea of urban sprawl that swallows up all of the towns and cities in between. When I hear the term Charlanta, I think of the DC suburbs, New Jersey turnpike, and the LA freeway. Frankly, that scares me.

But there’s another road we can go down. That road is effectively maintaining what we have and building upon it. What do I mean by that? Keeping Greenville and Spartanburg the world-class cities you have built them to be. Keeping our small towns, with their distinct cultures and distinct boundaries, surrounded by farms, the great outdoors, and all of the natural resources that we enjoy today. 

To the extent that you want to go down that second road — which, frankly, is much more appealing — the Conservation Bank will be a partner and a tool you can use to achieve that vision. 

In closing, I just offer this… It is possible that with your vision and leadership, we can have the best of both worlds. We can have thriving economic and cultural centers. We can have the great outdoors. We can have wonderful natural resources, clean air, and clean water. And maybe even dove fields that don’t disappear like the one from my childhood.

We can have it all, but that will be determined by what you decide this region will look like.

Thank you for your time, and thank you for this opportunity to speak to you today.

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