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Conservation Corner: SC needs a bipartisan effort

Working together is key to a clean, healthy environment.

In today’s world, partisanship seems more extreme than it has ever been — the Pew Research Center found that more than 81 percent of Republicans and Democrats have an unfavorable view of the other party. As a whole, we don’t thrive in partisan situations — probably because there are always winners and losers when it’s an “us” vs “them” argument.

As someone who works at the intersection of politics and conservation, I’m constantly reminded that bipartisanship has been and continues to be key to a clean and healthy environment.

So how do we get to a better bipartisan working relationship — both in conservation and in other policy discussions? In my opinion, we start small, at the most basic foundation of where opposing ideologies agree. For conservation, that’s the love of the land.

South Carolinians love the farms, forests, beaches and mountains that define our state. More than 80 percent of South Carolinians support efforts to protect these places. But this love of the land is not just a South Carolinian value — it is a bipartisan value. Land doesn’t know or care about political affiliation.

Already we’ve seen bipartisan leadership both from South Carolina’s federal and state delegations on land protection.

In Washington, there is ongoing debate over energy development on public lands as well as continued federal ownership of public lands. These are important questions. How much do we “use” our lands vs. how much do we “protect” them, and what do we do when these things might conflict?

Thankfully, we’ve seen bipartisan leadership from South Carolina’s federal delegation on these issues. In early 2017, there was robust debate about methane generated on federal public lands. On this issue, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) and Reps. Jim Clyburn (D) and Mark Sanford (R) all voted to preserve methane efficiency requirements and, in turn, helped maintain the balance between use and protection of our lands.

In late 2017, the tax plan included a provision that allowed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of the wildest landscapes left in America. Rep. Sanford was one of a handful of Republicans to speak out loudly against this provision, raising it as a major flaw of the plan.

While Rep. Sanford ultimately voted for the plan, his leadership on the Arctic Refuge shows that bipartisan leadership on difficult land protection issues is possible, but also that additional work is needed for policy success.

Thanking Sen. Graham and Reps. Sanford and Clyburn for their bipartisan leadership on these land protection efforts and encouraging them to continue this bipartisan work is key to make sure it, and other bipartisan conversations, continue. But we also need to pressure the remainder of our federal delegation to follow suit and be a part of a bipartisan land protection dialogue.

In the General Assembly, land protection discussions center on the S.C. Conservation Bank. The Conservation Bank is an innovative and market-driven state agency that, through a competitive grants process, has voluntarily protected more than 300,000 acres of special and unique places throughout South Carolina.

Unfortunately, the Conservation Bank is set to expire in mid-2018 unless reauthorized. As a result, there has been a great deal of debate in Columbia about the bank’s future.

Fortunately, state senators and representatives from both parties generally agree that there is immense value in state investment in the protection of special places. The debate about the Conservation Bank, therefore, has focused on operational details about how it should accomplish its work — rather than whether it should continue to exist.

We should thank the bipartisan group of state House and Senate leaders who are working tirelessly to reauthorize the bank. But we also need to encourage them to continue working to reauthorize it. There is simply too much at stake for this broadly supported agency and the future of land protection in South Carolina if we wait.

On the question of partisanship in general, we can and should look at these discussions as building blocks, both in the conservation realm and elsewhere. By starting with collaboration around land protection, we have provided an opportunity to build new relationships that are rooted in a foundation of shared values.

It’s by building on this foundation, exploring new and different collaborative opportunities, that we can overcome today’s partisanship and create communities that we are all proud to call home.

Note: This article originally appeared in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.

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