Politics & Government

Budget cuts undermine NC Natural Heritage Program

The budget for a state program that compiles information about the most important natural areas in North Carolina has been cut by more than half in the past two years, and program supporters and clients question whether it can still fulfill its mission.

The Natural Heritage Program gathers information that helps state and local agencies and conservation groups decide where to establish new parks and nature preserves. It also helps the state Department of Transportation, the military and private companies such as International Paper and Duke Energy comply with environmental regulations, including the federal Endangered Species Act.

The program’s budget, including contracts, has gone from $1.5 million in the 2013-14 fiscal year to $675,000 this year. The staff during that time has declined from 20 to six, as several field biologists lost their jobs.

Colin Mellor, who heads a program responsible for environmental permits at NCDOT, says the cuts at the Natural Heritage Program have slowed the flow of information that helps the department determine where and how to build roads. He says the most recent cut, in the budget approved in September, could eventually result in delays in road projects.

“As time passes, we will expect the same level of service and data fidelity that we have received in the past,” Mellor said. “And I don’t see how that will be possible with essentially  1/3 of their past manpower.”

Republican Gov. James Holshauser created the Natural Heritage Program in 1976 to establish a publicly-accessible database of the state’s rarest and most endangered plant and animal species and their habitats, as well as its most unique natural ecosystems. The idea was to make smart decisions about conserving land, rather than protecting something simply because it was pretty or belonged to someone influential.

Republican Gov. James Holshauser created the Natural Heritage Program in 1976 to establish a publicly accessible database of the state’s rarest and most endangered plant and animal species and their habitats, as well as its most unique natural ecosystems.

In 1985, the General Assembly wrote the program’s mission into law and established a state registry of voluntarily protected natural areas that would be guided by the work of the program’s scientists. Speaking at the program’s anniversary celebration last year, Alan Weakley, director of the UNC Herbarium at the N.C. Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill estimated that the program’s scientists have had a hand in protecting about 1.5 million acres in the state.

“All of these acres of conservation land have been facilitated, informed by, or directly created by the employees of the NHP,” Weakley said.

The first budget cut came two years ago when the legislature reduced the state appropriation to the program from about $1.3 million to $750,000. This year, the proposed budgets in both the House and the Senate included another 10 percent cut, said Will Morgan, director of government relations for the N.C. Nature Conservancy.

But when the final state budget came out of the conference committee, the Natural Heritage Program’s appropriation had been cut another 40 percent, to $450,000. Because the full House and Senate could not change the committee’s budget, supporters couldn’t make a case for restoring the money, Morgan said.

“If it’s not restored, then we won’t have the data that we need to prioritize how state dollars are being spent and how conservation groups are spending their limited dollars,” he said. “We’ll be basically driving in the dark because we will be making decisions without all the information.”

It’s not clear who pushed for the 40 percent cut. Rep. Roger West, a Cherokee County Republican who heads the appropriations subcommittee for the Natural and Economic Resources and the Environment Committee, told Coastal Review Online that “everything was on the block” and that the heritage program was not specifically targeted. West did not respond to requests for comment.

With all the moving parts, in my view, we made a bit of a mistake.

Rep. Chuck McGrady, who co-chairs the House Appropriations Committee

But Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican from Henderson County who co-chairs the House Appropriations Committee, says he doesn’t think most legislators knew what the final budget’s impact would be on the program. McGrady says that because the program was being moved from the old Department of Environment and Natural Resources to the new Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, the impact of the budget cut was obscured.

“With all the moving parts, in my view, we made a bit of a mistake,” McGrady said.

He also thinks the program is simply not well-known.

“It’s one of these programs that is sort of low profile and some may think it’s a feel-good program,” he said. “But in fact, this sort of work needs to be done if you’re going to have road projects and if we’re going to know how to allocate money through the Clean Water Management Trust Fund.”

Here are some examples of the program’s work:

▪ When state and federal agencies agreed last winter to preserve 8,000 acres of “environmentally rich” land around Jordan Lake last winter, they were basing their decision in large part on field work done by the Natural Heritage Program.

▪ Program scientists helped the Army and other federal agencies restore the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker at Fort Bragg to the point that the Army was able to resume using more than 3,100 acres of land for training that had been previously been restricted to protect the birds.

▪ Duke Energy consults the Natural Heritage Program when siting new facilities, particularly power lines, and in managing land it already owns or controls, said spokesman Jeff Brooks. Like the state DOT and other organizations, Duke Energy has already noticed that “some of the services they’ve provided have been reduced,” Brooks said.

“The information they provide saves a significant amount of time and resources for the company,” he said. “Without that service, we could possibility find the information, but we’d have to go to other resources and that can be very time intensive.”

Cary Cox, spokeswoman for the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, said she expects the department will ask the legislature to restore money to the Natural Heritage Program when it reconvenes in April. Rep. McGrady says he stands ready to push for it.

“How this thing is staffed appropriately really needs to be the recommendation of the department,” he said. “But I’m saying if we need the resources, I’m willing to go to bat for them.”

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling