Recent major acquisitions include 7 acres in Athens on the Middle Oconee River Greenway known as the Crane Tract between Ben Burton Park and the Atlanta Highway. It also bought 7,000 acres adjacent to the Altamaha River in Long and McIntosh counties that house the state's oldest and largest cypress and tupelo trees and at least 17 rare or threatened species.
Perdue got a summary of the program Friday while chairing a meeting of the State Properties Commission that must approve all of the applications for conservation. He had received criticism from environmentalists when he proposed the program in 2003 because he also dismantled a program started by his predecessor, Gov. Roy Barnes, which is credited with safeguarding 10,000 acres over four years.
The Barnes approach, called Georgia Greenspace, offered competitive grants to cities to purchase land that would become in-town parks. Perdue's program, which wound up with more rural parcels, offered tax credits to property owners who gave away the right to ever develop their land. Some were also paid for their development rights in exchange for conservation easements, and some merely donated the development rights or even the property outright.
The easements mean that farmers and timber producers can keep using their land, continuing the economic output and the property tax for local governments, a feature Barnes' program didn't allow.
Both programs handled about 300 tracts, and had similar funds from state appropriations. Barnes used $60 million while Perdue's used $52 million. However, the Perdue program also used $45 million in borrowing through bonds and $20.5 million in tax credits.
It leveraged what state taxpayers spent with outside funding sources, including $5.5 million from the sale of specialty car tags and donations on tax returns, $85 million in federal grants and loans, and $56 million in gifts by foundations.
Land donations alone totaled $216 million.
The partnering with donors and other levels of government took a while to demonstrate.
"It was a cultural shift," Perdue said. "I think people had gotten use to the state paying for everything." The conservation community hopes the next governor will use the mechanism Perdue created to expand the program with the eventual goal of protecting one out of every five acres in the state, or 20 percent of all its land. Only 8 percent is protected or owned by government now.
"They worked well given their funding constraints," said Will Wingate, vice president for advocacy and land acquisition at the Georgia Conservancy, one of the foundations participating in Perdue's program. "They just haven't hard much money to work with. The building blocks are in place, you just have to fund it to make it work."
Wingate recommended legislation that would allow property owners to sell the tax credits they get for donating conservation easements. He said that would give them a cash compensation for their donation and prompt more to participate.
Perdue has constantly fought such a proposal.
"That opens a whole can of worms I will never support," he said.
Wingate predicted transferable tax credits will come up in the next session of the legislature since Perdue will be out of office.