The North Carolina Government's attack on Land protections.
Over the past six years, the dismantling of North Carolina’s land conservation and stewardship has included:
- Cutting the budget for land conservation trust funds by 80%
- Reducing the budget of the Natural Heritage Trust Fund from $1.3 million to a mere $450,000, resulting in almost half of the employees being let go, and seriously impacting the viability of that important program
- Decimating the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which acquires land for the purpose of protecting water quality
Thus far, we have discussed how the North Carolina General Assembly and the executive branch, including the “customer-service” based Department of Environmental Quality, formerly the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources, have done enormous damage to our state’s water, air, energy, and coastal policies over the past six years.
In our focus on those depredations, we run the danger of taking our eye off something vital: simply the land. The dismantling of North Carolina’s environmental protections has also polluted the land. Pollution is not just leaky landfills or blowing trash. We pollute our land by developing it irresponsibly and by failing to maintain enough open space to absorb rain and runoff to recharge our aquifers and protect our waters; enough open space to support vegetation that naturally cleans our air and provides habitat to our wildlife; enough open space to absorb the natural insults hurled at the land by the sea; and enough open space throughout North Carolina to give its residents room to recreate and to enjoy our beautiful state.
In 1996, North Carolina leaders created the Clean Water Management Trust Fund in an effort to protect our waters by conserving open land. For more than a decade the Fund did unimaginable good, though it ran into trouble during the recent recession. In 1999 the legislature and former Governor Hunt established the Million Acre Initiative with the goal of adding an additional one million acres to the state’s 2.8 million acres of conserved land. By 2008 the Fund had saved 643,209 acres toward its one million acre goal. Starting in 2009, however, progress slowed considerably. In the midst of the recession, public and private land conservation projects only saved an additional 40,251 acres in 2009, and limited funding has continued to hinder the state’s ability to conserve land since.
Beginning in 2011, the legislature made the bad situation created by the recession worse by backing away from the State’s commitment to conserving land. In 2007, North Carolina granted $172.1 million through various trust funds to land conservation. In contrast, in 2011, the state trust funds granted only $34.5 million - a drop of 80 percent. During a time when land was inexpensive because of the recession, and developers were gobbling up forests and farmlands at a clip of 100,000 acres per year, the trust funds were reduced from funding nearly all requested purchases to funding less than one-sixth of requests.
The North Carolina State Parks system shows the devastation this lack of commitment has wrought. In 2008, the Division of Parks spent over $48 million acquiring land, but by 2013 had decreased this spending to less than $6 million, despite the 2011 identification of $1.4 billion in unmet needs. In acreage, this translates to an average acquisition of 5,940 acres per year in the seven years leading up to 2011, and only 1,288 acres of land in 2011. In the years since 2011, the Division of Parks has only acquired an average of 2,218 acres of land per year.
In 1976, Governor James Holshouser wisely created the Natural Heritage Program, to establish a publicly accessible database of North Carolina’s most rare and endangered plants and animals and their habitats, as well as the State’s most unique natural ecosystems. The goal was to help state agencies make good decisions about conserving the most important land in the State. But in 2014, the legislature cut the program’s budget almost in half, from $1.3 million to $750,000. The following year, another 40 percent was cut, slashing the budget to a mere $450,000. Almost half of the program’s employees were let go. This greatly impacted the Program’s ability to assist state and local agencies and conservation groups in deciding where to establish new parks and nature preserves and to help the North Carolina Department of Transportation and private companies comply with environmental regulations, such as the federal Endangered Species Act, the State Environmental Policy Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.
In 2007, North Carolina granted $172.1 million through various trust funds to land conservation. In contrast, in 2011, the state trust funds granted only $34.5 million - a drop of 80 percent.
Despite these cuts, land conservation is one of the few areas in which the current legislature has begun taking small steps towards responsible action. In 2015, it approved a bond referendum, including $75 million for park acquisitions and facility improvements, which was placed on the March 2016 primary ballot. The citizens of North Carolina overwhelmingly approved the bond, illustrating the public’s commitment to preserving land when given the choice. This is a fitting gesture for the 100th anniversary of our state parks. The 2016-2017 budget included $22.4 million for the Clean Water Management Trust Fund -- the highest amount it has received in years. The Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund also received an increase, receiving $3.6 million.
It is not surprising that legislators who have been educated on the value of land conservation recognize its importance to the state. One study, by the Trust for Public Land, found that lands protected by the state’s various trust funds provide an estimated $3.67 billion of value, which means that for every dollar invested in land conservation, the state reaps four dollars in benefits. Another study estimated that every million dollars invested in conservation, reforestation, and land or watershed restoration created 40 new jobs, and that the agriculture supported by the Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund employs 120,000 North Carolinians.
It is promising to see that at least regarding land conservation the state government is showing the beginnings of awareness of the value of our environment, though we still have years of damage to repair. On other environmental fronts, as we have discussed, our leaders have not yet begun to change course back to North Carolina’s history of strong environmental stewardship.
For six years, the North Carolina state government has dismantled the safeguards for our state’s air, water, land, and coastline to the detriment of North Carolinians. In one area – land conservation – we are beginning to see a turnaround, illustrating that North Carolina can do better.
But the point is not that North Carolina can do better.
The point is that North Carolina has to do better.