The recent disclosure that funding to the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program was slashed in meat clever fashion comes as no surprise from a body of “conservative” lawmakers who have lost sight of the significance of the concept of conserving and documenting our state’s rich natural legacy. Ironically, it was a Republican governor, James Holshouser, who presided over the Tar Heel state when the concept of officially documenting the vastness of our plant and animal species and their habitats was promoted and funded in 1976.
An early North Carolina naturalist, John Brickell, observed in 1737: “Of the Plants growing in this Country, I have given an Account of the hundredth Part of what remains; a Catalogue of which would be a Work of many years, and more than the Age of one Man to perfect, or bring into regular classes, this Country being so very large and different in its situation and its Soil.”
North Carolina remains one of the most biologically diverse areas in terms of resident plant and animal species residing in a temperate climate. This legacy is a treasure, not a trophy to be squandered for short-term gain by politicians resorting to Machiavellian tactics. What better way to destroy the effectiveness of a governmental agency than death by a thousand cuts through underfunding.
I imagine attempting to outright eliminate the Natural Heritage Program might prove to be even more controversial. Hunters and sports fishermen are among some of the most ardent conservationists and advocates for expanding knowledge of the natural world. Most politicians are certainly mindful of their potential power in the polling booth.
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A pioneering wildlife biologist, Aldo Leopold, stated nearly seven decades ago: “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, ‘What good is it?’ If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
North Carolina recently documented its 10 millionth human resident, underscoring increased pressure facing at-risk animals, plants and ecosystems in all geographic regions of the state. The budget for the Natural Heritage Program should be restored to surpass previous funding to prioritize recognition and protection of the irreplaceable. A species or an original habitat cannot be duplicated in a laboratory or a conservative think tank.
Practicing responsible research and conservation is a refusal to maintain a myopic approach toward safeguarding a rich birthright for our children’s children.
Greg Bruhn, a retired guidance counselor and employee of the N.C. State University grounds management division, lives in Raleigh.