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Western North Carolina is starting to see the effects of a rebound in funding for the state’s two main conservation funds.
The money was added near the end of last year’s extended budget talks, during which funding for the state’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund fluctuated.
But both funds ended up with recurring budgets higher than those in previous years. They also received additional non-recurring funds.
The clean water trust fund will have roughly $38.7 million and the parks trust fund about $37.2 million to spend in the two-year budget cycle. Both will send a significant portion of their funds to WNC.
In late November, the Clean Water Management Trust Fund distributed $19.3 million in grants to state agencies and conservation groups to aid with watershed and waterway restoration projects and to acquire critical land. Of that total, more than $12 million in grants went to mountain counties, where conservation groups have focused on stream restoration and acquiring land to protect critical headwaters.
The increase in funding builds on the steady climb from recession-era lows.
When it was started in 1996 the annual target budget for the Clean Water Management Trust Fund was $100 million. Although it rarely reached that level, it seldom fell below $30 million annually until 2008, when lawmakers cut funding to fill budget gaps.
When Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2011, the annual appropriation continued to drop, reaching a low of $11.5 million per year in 2013 and 2014.
Will Morgan, Director of Government Relations for the North Carolina chapter of The Nature Conservancy, said that when the legislature changed leadership, the conservation funds, particularly the Clean Water fund, suffered because they were seen as a holdover from past leadership.
That attitude, Morgan said, has definitely changed in the past couple of years.
“There’s no question that they’ve turned the corner,” he said of the funds. “Now, you have legislative leaders who are starting to take ownership of the funds.”
With the budget boost, the latest round of grants from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund shows a number of large grants to assist The Nature Conservancy, Blue Ridge Conservancy and other groups in land acquisition, a longtime focus of the fund in WNC until cuts made large-scale grants difficult.
While the amount of grants requested still far outstrips the amount available, Morgan said, there is hope that the funds will see a steady rise. “I think we’ll see a pattern of incremental increases,” he said.
David Rogers, State Director of Environment NC, said the additional funding for the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund in the budget was a welcome change.
“We’re excited about it,” he said, “although it’s still short of where we used to be.”
The fund, which averages about $18.6 annually under the new budget, was at $50 million annually 10 years ago.
Rogers said that while the increase is welcome, legislators have created more uncertainty now by eliminating a real-estate transfer tax that was the fund’s main dedicated revenue source and replacing it with money from annual appropriations.
“That does leave it to the whim and whimsy of the legislature,” he said.
One concern for this year, Rogers said, is whether legislators will leave untouched an extra $10 million budgeted for 2016 when they return this spring.
“We don’t know for sure, but we’re cautiously optimistic we’ll see the level of funding originally budgeted,” he said.
One factor will be what happens with the bond referendum. There is roughly $75 million in the bond program earmarked for park projects, he said. If the bonds fail to pass, legislators could once again see the trust funds as a way to plug budget gaps.
2015 Clean Water Management Trust Fund Grants in WNC
- Avery County — $400,000 to Pilot View and $196,725 to the N.C. Forest Service for the Linville River restoration projects;
- Buncombe County — $310,775 to RiverLink for the Dingle Creek watershed project; $338,627 to the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy for land acquisition at Eller Cove in the Weaverville watershed; $390,000 to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission for acquisition of the Shelton Tract; $80,000 to RiverLink for the Smith Mill Creek watershed plan and $120,000 for restoration.
- Haywood County — $1.2 million to the Conservation Fund for land acquisition at Indian Creek and $1.19 million for acquisition at Mashie Stomp Creek; $230,865 to Southwestern RC& D Council for restoration at Dotson Branch watershed and $60,690 for land acquisition at Raccoon Road wetlands.
- Henderson County — $388,000 for land acquisition for Bearwallow Mountain in conjunction with the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy; $36,900 for a Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Conservation Program addition to Bat Fork Bog; $264,000 to Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy for land acquisition for Chief Bell Trail Park, $57,800 for Rush Mountain Stream restoration, and $155,301 for acquisition of the Hollamon Tract.
- Polk County — $202,350 to the Wildlife Resources Commission for land acquisition at Little Cove Creek; $400,000 to the county soil and water conservation district for North Pacolet River stream restoration project.
- McDowell County — $1 million to Foothills Conservancy for land acquisition in the Armstrong Creek watershed and $186,797 for land at the Left Prong Catawba River; $297,500 to the county soil and water conservation district for the Limekiln Creek restoration project.
- Rutherford County — $148,000 to Division of Parks and Recreation for land acquisition at Rumbling Bald and Cane Creek Mountain.
- Swain County — $400,000 to Swain County for land acquisition at Inspiration Park.
- Transylvania County — $1.2 million for land acquisition at the headwaters of the East Fork of the French Broad River with the North Carolina Forestry Service.
- Watauga County — $196,192 to the Blue Ridge Conservancy for land acquisition for the Middle Fork Greenway, $126,280 for land acquisition at Tater Hill Bog Preserve and $51,764 for expansion of Valle Crucis Community Park; $122,000 to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and $368,000 to the Division of Parks and Recreation for land acquisition at Elk Knob State Park;
- Yancey County — $1.2 million to the Conservation Fund for land acquisition at Cattail Peak.
That’s quite a lot of money to Conservation Fund projects – $3.6 million, which is almost 20% of the $19.3 million distributed statewide. It appears that $1.2 million is a “max award” for CWMTF projects, and the only max award project in the mountains not affiliated with the Conservation Fund was land acquisition for the new Headwaters State Forest. Any idea of the intended end use of the land purchased by the Conservation Fund? Will they be allowing public access or be transferred to public ownership, as Headwaters eventually will be? The Haywood County tracts appear to border the Smokies; most, though not all, of the Yancey County tracts border Pisgah National Forest near Mt. Mitchell.