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Can we protect the places we love?

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, October 20, 2003

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Growth and development are byproducts of a healthy economy.

"Gosh! It's gone!"

How many times have you said that to yourself as you drove past former pasture land or a forest that has suddenly become a new subdivision or office building?

If you live in some of North Carolina's urban areas, this kind of thing is happening to you almost every day.

According to a new report from the North Carolina Public Interest Research Group, our state is losing crop and forest land at the rate of 383 acres every day--based on the rate of loss over the past 20 years.

The new report entitled, "Losing Our Natural Heritage: North Carolina's Disappearing Open Space," puts numbers to the daily loss of open space that we see in the Charlotte, Raleigh, and Triad areas.

During the last 20 years, the Charlotte area lost 300,000 acres of crop and forest lands (26% of the total crop and forest lands), the Raleigh area, 360,000 acres (21%), and the Triad, 216,000 acres (24%).

The loss of cropland is not limited to the state's urban areas. Our rural mountain area lost 52% of its farmlands.

Statewide, over the last 20 years, North Carolina's developed land area increased by about 2 million acres--almost doubling our total developed acreage.

At first glance, 2 million additional developed acres might not seem alarming in light of North Carolina's total land acreage of about 30 million acres.

But the trend gets very discouraging when you see that another 2.4 million acres are projected to be developed during the next 20 years--including virtually all the unprotected open areas in our large urban counties.

Also, the rate of growth of developed land is about twice the rate of our population growth. Thus, as our available land decreases, our requirements for developed land for each person increase. Unless this trend is modified, we are in for trouble of crisis proportions.

Does this accelerating loss of open space mean that we should be standing in front of the bulldozers to stop this projected development?

I do not think so. Growth and development are byproducts of a healthy economy. New North Carolinians, whether homegrown or coming from someplace else, ought to have the opportunity to live in a good home in a nice neighborhood. But homes and neighborhoods are not very nice if they are too far from recreational areas or if the entire nearby natural environment has been destroyed.

There is one hard fact that the numbers in this report make quite clear: land that communities view as precious will not be here 20 years from now unless those lands are quickly identified and preserved. If nobody acts, they will be gone forever.

Thankfully, some local governments have sounded the alarm. They are carefully developing solid open space plans. Even if the plans cannot be fully funded now, those communities will be ready to act when times get better.

North Carolina has a goal of protecting one million acres of open space by 2010. During the three years since the goal was established, 150,000 acres have been protected.

Much of this land has been protected with the help of the state's Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which provides grants and matching funds to local governments for projects that will improve the state's water quality. During the recent financial crisis, the legislature tried to protect its land purchase trust funds. But it had to make significant reductions, making it difficult to achieve the one million-acre goal on time.

What can you and I, as ordinary citizens, do?

First you can get more information about the report from the North Carolina Public Interest Research Group by calling (919) 933-5889 or e-mailing them at (

Secondly, you can also work with your local or regional land trust or one of the national organizations that works to protect open space, like the Nature Conservancy, Trust for Public Land, and the Conservation Fund. These groups are working with local government units and others to identify and to find the resources to protect the most important open spaces.

Thirdly, we can support political candidates who understand the challenge--and who will work to help us protect the places we love.


D.G. Martin hosts UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This week’s (October 26) program features Reynolds Price author of A Serious Way of Wondering.

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