There are few things that impact Georgia’s economy and quality of life as equally as our natural resources.
Think about it. Our $59 billion tourism industry would not be nearly as robust without our beautiful beaches, marshes, lakes and mountain ranges. Our $23 billion outdoor recreation industry, the 5th largest in the nation, might not even exist. And the hunters and anglers who contribute nearly $4 billion to our economy every year would be looking for somewhere else to go.
At the same time, companies choose to locate in Georgia in part because of the quality of life to which these natural resources contribute. Maintaining the delicate balance between economic progress and land conservation is a priority for organizations like ours who care about our state’s future. It is also why we are strong proponents of the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act (HB332), which was approved by the House Natural Resources Committee during the 2017 legislative session.
This proposal would generate as much as $40 million in annual dedicated funding for land conservation without raising or creating any taxes or fees. At no additional cost to Georgia taxpayers or businesses, we could develop and implement long-range land management plans that take both the needs of our environment and our economy into account. The funding would be used to acquire lands critical to the protection of our water supplies, wildlife and outdoor recreation. It would also be used to acquire and improve parks in urban areas and maintain access to already protected lands throughout the state.
Why is this important? Because our state continues to grow. And if we do not take proactive steps to protect our land, we could easily lose the opportunity to do so. Today, less than ten percent of Georgia’s lands are managed for conservation and many of those are leased. A dedicated source of funding will better enable the state to acquire those lands when they become available and protect them for future generations.
One reason for urgency is the potential listing of the gopher tortoise, Georgia’s state reptile, as a federally endangered species. This native animal, which could once be found across over half the land mass of Georgia, has experienced a significant loss of population. If its habitat is not protected, we risk losing an important keystone species. We would also experience a significant impact on our economy as with the designation as an endangered species comes new regulations and restrictions that could hamper economic development, forestry and agriculture.
In addition, as House Military Affairs Study Committee Chair Dave Belton recently pointed out, with the potential of future Base Realignment and Closure hearings looming, Georgia must be able to level the playing field with other states that are aggressively working to ensure military installations have the land they need to operate efficiently. Additional funding would enhance the work already being done in collaboration with the Department of Defense to support our installations and protect this critical sector of Georgia’s economy.
The Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act provides a solution that would meet both our short and long-term land conservation needs. It would allow our state to maintain its position as a great place to live and work and to preserve those assets that attract thousands of visitors every year. We are excited about the positive reception it has received from elected leaders and are hopeful they will ultimately agree this is the right path forward to guarantee that success long into the future.
The authors are: The Conservation Fund – Andrew Schock, Georgia State Director; Georgia Conservancy – Robert Ramsay, President; Georgia Wildlife Federation – Mike Worley, President and CEO; The Nature Conservancy – Deron Davis, Executive Director; Park Pride – Michael Halicki, Executive Director; The Trust for Public Land – George Dusenbury, Georgia State Director.