No land for tomorrow?

Any fund-raiser worth their salt will tell you that it’s a whole lot easier to get somebody to donate money for a building than for an idea. And when it comes to doling out your tax dollars, a similar phenomenon seems to be at work. (Someone cleverer than I once dubbed it an “edifice complex.”)

This unfortunate obsession with concrete may have put the brakes on Land for Tomorrow — one of the biggest conservation initiatives North Carolina has seen in years. As the final budget negotiations in Raleigh dragged on, horse trading over proposed bonds and other indebtedness heated up. And in the ensuing scramble for cash, supporters of the $1 billion bond program to protect key lands throughout the state were left empty-handed and even stunned.

The project — backed by more than 228 groups advocating for conservation, clean water, and preserving farmland and natural heritage — had a solid head of steam heading into the legislative session. About half of the Senate and two-thirds of the House had signed on as co-sponsors.

But Gov. Mike Easley said this was not the year to pile on debt, agreeing to support funding for only a select list items such as a new crime lab, expanding the N.C. Museum of Art and a handful of public health-and-safety projects. Sen. Tony Rand, D- Cumberland, signaled that he and the Senate leadership agreed with the governor. That left only the House solidly behind Land for Tomorrow. And Paul Luebke, D-Durham, who chairs the House Finance Committee, said it was time to start thinking about next year.

The Land for Tomorrow program, which would require voter approval via a bond referendum, would parcel out $200 million a year over five years to preserve “the goodliest land.” Money would also have gone to preserving family farms and rural heritage, supporting “green” economic development, and other programs that you might not think of when you hear the word “conservation.”

Crawford Crenshaw, who chairs the Land for Tomorrow’s steering committee, said it was disappointing to see something with so much legislative support lose out. Crenshaw said the coalition would continue to push for the legislation this session, but acknowledged it was “late in the fourth quarter.”

Luebke said the best thing backers of Land for Tomorrow can do now is to make sure members of the General Assembly hear about it, especially between now and November. “You got to build support among legislators,” he said. You can start at www.landfortomorrow.org.

Morton honored

One thing both houses did manage to do smoothly last week was pay tribute to the late Hugh Morton, who was laid to rest last month after a ceremony in Greensboro broadcast on statewide public television. With his wife, Julia, and family present in the gallery, the praise was heartfelt and filled with tales of Morton’s efforts to preserve the state’s natural heritage as he captured its beauty on film. It was evident, though, that try as he might have to preserve the mountain skies, Morton — like the state — fought a losing battle.

Speaker of the House Jim Black noted that one of his prized possessions is a view of the Charlotte skyline Morton shot from Grandfather Mountain, some 100 miles away. It is a view, he noted quietly, that is no longer possible.

[Award-winning North Carolina journalist Kirk Ross, the former managing editor of the Independent Weekly, now covers state government and public policy in his column and blog (www.exileonjonesstreet.com).]

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