The hellbender salamander population in Western North Carolina is being studied as a special of special concern. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Zoo.

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Conservation organizations hope the N.C. General Assembly restores funds cut from a public program they say is vital to safeguard the state’s natural resources.

The N.C. Natural Heritage Program (NCNHP) is tasked with gathering data about North Carolina’s rare and endangered plant and animal species.

But since 2011, legislators have slashed funding for the program from $1.5 million to $450,000 in the current fiscal year that began July 1, a loss of $1.05 million representing 70 percent of the program.

Will Morgan, the director of government relations at the North Carolina chapter of the Nature Conservancy said the most recent round of cuts were unexpected. While an initial budget draft proposed a 10 percent decrease, a conference committee of the state’s General Assembly slashed an additional 30 percent in the final hours before passing the state’s budget in September.

“It was a big surprise,” said Morgan whose organization uses the data generated by the program.

“It was really frustrating that we didn’t have a chance to defend the program. The Natural Heritage Program is the building block of all the conservation work we do across the state. It gives us the science to identify high priority places; without it we’re driving in the dark.”

Conservation Information

Misty Buchanan, the program’s director, said the NCNHP was established in 1985 by the Nature Preserves Act. The original mission was to create a system of preserves to protect the state’s natural heritage. The program oversees 490 nature preserves and heritage areas, totaling more than 1.2 million acres.

Buchanan said the program is also a clearinghouse of maps and information about the state’s rarest species and their habitat – information gathered through fieldwork and collected from other agencies.

“Our data has a wide range of uses,” she said. “The information requested by landowners and land managers help them identify which resources are on the ground in order to plan the best management practices.”

In addition to providing species and habitat data to conservation groups, the program provides scientific information to state agencies such as the N.C. Department of Transportation for road building projects, landowners planning conservation easements and private industry, such as HDR, Inc., a global engineering and construction firm that employees 300 in four North Carolina offices.

John Jamison, an environmental scientist with HDR, said the company regularly utilizes datasets the NHP provides to identify potential constraints on infrastructure projects.

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“We use their data to help us review existing populations of rare species, which then allows us to determine the potential for species to occur within a project’s footprint,” Jamison said.

“This can help speed up the planning process and eliminate unnecessary steps. They are a reliable piece of the puzzle in our goal of improving North Carolina’s infrastructure.”

Buchanan said roughly 400 private companies request information from her program each year. The most recent budget cuts, she said, will have a significant impact on their ability to deliver information efficiently to Duke Energy, public agencies, and private landowners since gathering information requires time intensive field work.

Fewer Employees, Less Data

According to the NCNHP, in 2012 the program employed 19. By December 1, 2015, there will be just seven. And with a smaller staff on the ground, Buchanan said, there will be less information to share, since gathering and mapping the ecological value of the state will take longer.

While the program relies, in part, on revenue collected from contracts and grants, Buchanan is hoping that legislators reinstate some of the funding.

“When decision-makers understand the benefits the program has for business and industry, military installations and training, and the quality of life of our state’s citizens, we hope they’ll be persuaded to reverse the cuts of the past few years,” Buchanan said.

Western North Carolina legislators differ regarding the impact of recent cuts.

Rep. Roger West, a Republican representing the mountain counties of Clay, Cherokee, Macon and Graham, is the chairman of state House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture and Natural and Economic Resources.

West recently told Coastal Review Online that the program was not targeted for cuts.

“Everybody was on the block,” West said. “They’ll have to tighten up and do the best they can.”

West, who recently announced that he will not seek re-election next year, did not respond to interview requests from Carolina Public Press.

But Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican from Henderson County, does think the program is valuable and should continue to be funded.

“I don’t think most legislators know much about the program, and I doubt most legislator were fully aware of the cuts to the program in the last budget,” McGrady said.

“I’ve told senior officials at the Department of Natural and Cultural Affairs that I intend to seek funding for the four position that were cut in the last budget. I think there is a lot of work to be done and the cuts were ill-advised.”

David Ray of the Open Space Institute, a conservation organization based in New York with an office in Asheville said the data generated by the program is vital to support the work of land conservation groups.

“The program is a great way for conservation organizations to prioritize their resources. The data goes a long way in helping direct funds to the most important places,” he said.

Ray is concerned that the trend to diminish the program’s budget may continue without vocal support from North Carolina’s residents.

“Most people have no idea the program exists,” Ray said. “We need to elevate, in the public eye, what this is and why this is important.

“I do feel if the public doesn’t understand what these programs are or why they are beneficial then we could lose them. There won’t be a public to say we want this.”

Clarifying the Mission

Not only are citizens unaware of the program, Morgan of the Nature Conservancy thinks the deep budget cuts may have been aided by lawmakers’ misconceptions about the program.

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The program is currently part of the state’s Office of Land and Water Stewardship of the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. But prior to a statewide agency reorganization in 2013, the program was housed in the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), a regulatory agency that some state legislators view as a burden to economic growth. That agency has recently had its name changed to the Department of Environmental Quality or DEQ.

“Since DENR is a regulatory program, there was a misperception that the Natural Heritage Program was a regulatory program as well,” Morgan said.

“I think there is a lack of understanding by legislators of how widely the program is used.”

Another misunderstanding among adversaries of the program, Morgan said, is that the NCNHP gathers information, such as data about endangered species, that would be used to restrict or prohibit private owners from developing their land.

“They are not telling anyone where they can or can’t develop,” said Morgan. “They are not a permitting agency.”

Buchanan added that their employees to do not enter private land unless they have asked for permission or were invited.

Despite the recent setbacks, she’s hopeful that state legislators will restore some of the program’s funding.

“If legislators understand how business and industry uses our data maybe they’ll give us another chance,” she said.

Morgan said that he is “cautiously optimistic” that funding will be bumped back up to previous funding levels.

“North Carolina is home to special places and special species that are nowhere else in the world,” he said. “Once they are gone, they are gone for good.”

Jack Igelman

Jack Igelman is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jack@igelman.com.

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