Consider the piggy bank.
Admittedly, it might be a dated reference, since these days even young kids track their savings on smartphone apps rather than within the ceramic body of a pig.
But as 2020 was drawing to a long-overdue close, Greenville County did indeed create its own piggy bank of sorts.
It’s a piggy bank in which all the money saved will go to permanently protect Greenville’s natural and historic assets — its lakes, rivers, mountains, trees and animal habitats — for residents, tourists and future generations.
The creation of the so-called “conservation trust fund,” which was passed unanimously by Greenville County Council on Dec. 15, was a major step toward securing through legislation the county’s commitment toward green-space protection.
Now all the county needs to do is fill that piggy bank up.
“There’s no money in the trust right now,” said Andrea Cooper, executive director of Upstate Forever, one of the leading environmental advocacy groups in Upstate South Carolina. Cooper put extra emphasis on the words “right now,” because, as she says, the plan was always to set up the trust first, with money to be allocated later on in the start of 2021.
But she did make clear that she wants to commend the county for giving the green light on this program, which she says has “limitless potential to conserve our natural and historic places.”
“I think businesses and local government are realizing that in order to attract and retain top talent, you have to have a vibrant community and place to live,” Cooper added. “The simple fact is, environmental conservation is good for the economy.”
Finding the balance
Cooper is hardly the first to argue for the economic benefits of environmental conservation, but to boil that claim down to a simple equation (say, X amount of environmental conservation = Y amount of economic development) is an all-but-impossible endeavor.
That’s not to say it hasn’t been attempted. Back in 2012, a report from Southern Utah University, Utah State University and the Center for Public Lands and Rural Economics compared a number of economic factors with the percent of wilderness per county. What the authors of the report found, however, was that any clear conclusions are difficult to ascertain, given that the most natural areas tend, by nature, to be where fewer people live — thus, less economic development.
What Cooper and other stakeholders within the county are striving toward, therefore, is to find a balance — that sweet spot between continued growth and continued environmental protection. With the county projected to add 340,000 new people by 2040, and with development set to be twice what it is today, that balance will only become more difficult to attain if action isn’t taken now.
“People want to be outside more and more, and I don’t see that going away,” Cooper said. “Already we’re seeing our natural areas being over-loved. If you want to go out now, you have to wake up super early just to get a parking spot. That’s not ideal, and it’s just going to get worse as more people continue to move here.”
Mac Stone serves as executive director of NatureLand Trust, an environmental advocacy group that has been working to protect South Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains and the Piedmont since the early 1970s.
Stone said maintaining that balance is not only vital for economic development, but is actually crucial to the county’s very identity.
“People come to Greenville and live in Greenville because it has that balance,” Stone said, “and with more and more people able to work remotely, I think we’re going to see a massive influx of people coming here.”
The extent to which natural preservation affects every aspect of life for county residents is often overlooked, Stone said, and it’s not solely about hiking trails, waterfalls and lakes.
“This is an investment in our future that will pay big dividends. Besides protecting and enhancing our quality of life, it will help us recruit businesses and good jobs that seek areas with a strong conservation ethic and access to nature.” – Doug Harper, Harper General Contractors
Consider our culinary scene. For the average diner enjoying Greenville’s booming farm-to-table culture, it can be easy to assume that independent agriculture is thriving in the area. In fact, the opposite is true. From 2001 to 2016, nearly 280,000 acres of agricultural land in the Upstate was replaced with urban development, according to American Farmland Trust. The group ranked both Greenville and Spartanburg counties as among the top four counties in the state for land conservation threat.
“It’s really multifaceted,” Stone said. “All these things tend to go hand in hand.”
While the need to preserve green space, outdoor recreation, wildlife and agriculture may seem daunting, the county isn’t sitting on its hands.
In fact, both Cooper and Stone say they are optimistic about what the next decade holds.
They point to a growing number of measures that aim to support environmental efforts. The City of Greenville’s recent tree ordinance, which held its third reading in city council in December, will protect the mature tree canopy — and by extension, water, air and quality of life for city residents. The strong support for rural land regulations to set minimum lot sizes for new developments, as outlined in the county’s compressive plan, will fight against urban sprawl. And the recent establishment of the conservation trust fund points to a growing collaboration between county residents, county leaders and the business community.
Doug Harper of Harper General Contractors, who makes his living through Greenville’s development sector, worked hand-in-hand with groups like Upstate Forever to ensure the creation of the trust.
“This is an investment in our future that will pay big dividends,” Harper said. “Besides protecting and enhancing our quality of life, it will help us recruit businesses and good jobs that seek areas with a strong conservation ethic and access to nature. Council was wise to adopt this ordinance.”
Still, 2021 will be a year of “ifs” for environmental conservation in Greenville.
If the trust is not well-funded, Cooper said no significant headway can be made in terms of protecting Greenville’s “unique quality of life.”
If the county does not adopt a united development ordinance to update zoning and land development regulations — which is set to happen this summer — the goals set in the comprehensive plan will be little more than a wish list.
If the South Carolina Conservation Bank, the state’s most important land protection tool, is underfunded due to COVID-19-related budget cuts, local groups will also see their budgets significantly restricted.
But the only certainty Cooper and others have is that the main driver of environmental conservation within the county is the county residents themselves.
“What we really need are leaders from the community to step up and steer things in a positive direction,” Cooper said. “Most communities only realize the value of their natural areas after they’ve disappeared. But I think more and more, our community is taking the reins and helping to steer the county into a future that builds on our quality of life without losing what we love.”