Point of View

DENR's new mission takes wrong course

April 30, 2013 

There was a time when Republicans established the Environmental Protection Agency and considered stewardship of the environment a cornerstone of assuring America’s future. Those days seem very far away as Republicans, including Gov. Pat McCrory, are increasingly rejecting environmental protection and empirical science.

Prior to McCrory’s becoming governor, North Carolina had a solid reputation for environmental stewardship grounded in constructive engagement between two co-equal state agencies. The Department of Commerce is the welcome mat and advocate for new and expanding businesses. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources is the enforcer of the National Environmental Protection Act and the advocate for those affected by the externalities of new and expanding businesses.

Each agency has a noble mission that benefits the state. Pure environmentalism can hamper the creation of economic opportunity and job growth. Pure economic development can permanently scar a landscape, cause harm to people’s health and eradicate qualities of life and community that attract business.

A balance must be struck between competing interests and missions. The role of the Department of Commerce and DENR is to prepare their best briefs and to constructively engage interested parties and the public to help determine this balance. They also must articulate the trade-offs that inevitably occur when competing interests interact.

DENR used to have a straightforward mission statement that supported this effort: “To conserve and protect North Carolina’s natural resources and to maintain an environment of high quality by providing valuable services that consistently support and benefit the health and well-being of all citizens of our state.”

New DENR Secretary John Skvarla, a McCrory appointee, has revised the department’s mission statement to fundamentally change its role. The changes are significant and deserve attention from anyone who cares about science and conservation.

The new mission statement alters the very definition of science, telling us that science “contains diversity of opinion” and “all public programs and scientific conclusions must be reflective of input from a variety of legitimate, diverse and thoughtful perspectives.”

Science is not based on “opinion” or “thoughtful perspectives.” Science contains a body of knowledge arrived at through testing and experimentation. Ironically, this is what conservative thought – in politics and policy in general – has always emphasized. Now we are told any perspective, regardless of whether it has been tested, deserves equal time.

The new mission statement also emphasizes “cost-benefit analysis” in environmental policy. The damages that bad environmental policy causes are not calculable in immediate terms in the same way an actuary determines how much a new car depreciates when it leaves the lot. Environmental damage is long-term and affects not only the resources available to future generations, but also our national heritage.

There can be no “cost-benefit” consideration of the Great Smoky Mountains, Outer Banks beaches or Civil War historic sites protected from mining, foresting or other development. How many dollars is it worth to take your family to these parks? What is the true value of sites that define our state and national identity?

The McCrory administration also redefines DENR as a “service organization.” It is not. The department is a regulatory body charged with enforcing laws, including the federal rules of the Environmental Protection Agency. The clear implication of the McCrory version suggests nullification of federal law – that DENR will “service” the political choices of the governor, not enforce the law.

McCrory and Skvarla should remember that DENR’s environmental regulatory powers are delegated to them by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In 2001, EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, President Bush’s Republican appointee, stripped this power from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and directly managed the state’s enforcement process to prevent the state agency from becoming a doormat for developers. This could be the remedy in North Carolina should the vivisection of environment law and science continue.

McCrory – who has portrayed himself as a moderate – is sending dangerously extreme signals to the new conservative radicals who want to pander to anti-conservationist extremists.

We have different political perspectives, but we value the real conservative legacy of responsible governance and custodianship of our planet. These new radical “conservatives” should not be allowed to hijack that legacy. In the words of this new DENR mission statement, we detect a hijacking in progress, emblematic of the larger self-destruction of the real conservative movement.

Scot Faulkner was personnel director for Reagan-Bush and the chief administrative officer of the U.S. House of Representatives. Jonathan Riehl, J.D., Ph.D., is a communications consultant for political campaigns and national nonprofit organizations and an instructor in communications studies at Wake Technical Community College.

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