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Gov. Cooper Calls for Wetlands, Forest Restoration, Rebuffs Lawmakers’ Stripping Protections

by | Feb 15, 2024 | Nature, North Carolina | 0 comments

Back in May, 2023, I wondered if NC would be nature positive by 2040 when our kids become adults. With our ongoing loss of wildlife habitat, the future looks grim. Here is some good news in an article from NC Newsline. Governor Cooper is taking a stand against the loss of wetlands. I thought the comment in the article about “isolated wetlands” being connected to other wetlands under the surface was especially important. Tom

by Lisa Sorg
February 13, 2024

A new executive order asks state cabinet agencies to permanently conserve and reforest North Carolina’s wetlands and to plant urban trees, activities that could replenish 3 million acres by 2040.

Gov. Roy Cooper yesterday issued Executive Order 305,  essentially  an environmental rebuttal to judicial and legislative actions that stripped protections from 2.5 million acres of wetlands in North Carolina.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “isolated wetlands” don’t meet the legal threshold for regulation under the Clean Water Act, exposing these vital natural areas to development. The state legislature piled on, ensuring in the Farm Act of 2023 that regulators couldn’t protect isolated wetlands, either. Cooper vetoed the bill, but lawmakers, led by a Republican majority and a few Democrats, overrode it.

“The governor’s action today recognizes how vital wetlands are to North Carolina’s people and wildlife, fisheries and flood protection,” said Mary Maclean Asbill, director of the North Carolina offices of the Southern Environmental Law Center, in a prepared statement. “North Carolina’s legislature set the wrong example by failing to protect our wetlands, increasing the risk of flooding to our communities and endangering North Carolinians and fisheries.”

Yet these “isolated wetlands” are often not “isolated” at all. Studies conducted by several scientists, including hydrologists from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, showed that “isolated” wetlands actually connect to other waterbodies. Those connections aren’t necessarily visible because they happen underground.

“Governor Cooper’s conservation targets are laudable and far-sighted, and are critically needed in light of shortsighted actions by our state legislature and the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Erin Carey, interim state director of the N.C. Sierra Club Chapter, in a prepared statement. “The long-term preservation of our state’s wetlands is paramount. It’s not just environmentally essential to protect these areas, it’s economically savvy to allow nature to play its full role in protecting our communities.”

Pocosins, Carolina bays and mountain bogs are at the highest risk of being drained and developed. As a long term goal, the EO says, the state should strive for a “net gain” in wetlands, and at minimum, “no net loss.”

EO 305 emphasizes the importance of working lands, such as forests, wetlands and pasture. These natural features  are bulwarks against climate change, providing flood control, wildlife habitat, as well as filters for air and water pollution. These “nature-based solutions” in flood-prone areas figure prominently in DEQ’s Flood Resiliency Blueprint, which will be finalized this spring.

Pasture can retain water during flooding, which keeps rising waters from damaging homes and roads. The EO directs state agencies to incentivize and pay owners of agricultural lands to use their property for that purpose. The use would be temporary and participation, voluntary.

Wetlands and forests, in particular, store carbon, preventing it from entering the atmosphere. These features trapped more than a third of the state’s greenhouse gases, according to a 2022 inventory released last month by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. In cities, urban trees are key to reducing the public health harms of heat islands, especially in historically underserved and marginalized neighborhoods. State data show cities in North Carolina are losing 4,510 acres of urban trees each year. Raleigh alone has lost 11,120 acres in the past decade.

The Cooper administration has often said that environmental protection and economic development can work in tandem. DEQ has an economic liaison, David Lambert, who also works with the state Commerce Department in addressing environmental issues when recruiting or incentivizing businesses.

The EO tells cabinet agencies that “within the fullest extent of their authority” they should consider the “potential adverse impacts of grant-funded activities on these ecosystems.” This includes minimizing new construction that harms forests, wetlands and biodiversity. And if those harms are unavoidable, they should be blunted through nature-based solutions and compensatory mitigation.

Compensatory mitigation requires a developer or state agency that can’t avoid or minimize an impact to a wetland or stream, to offset the damage in order to receive a water quality permit. That could mean paying a fee, which is based on the sensitivity and extent of the disturbed area, to the state. In turn, the state converts those dollars into credits, which developers can then buy. Private mitigation banks also sell credits to developers.

The order also contains reporting requirements:

By June, DEQ must determine the feasibility of developing high-resolution land cover data, using remote sensors, to better understand how land is used in North Carolina.By August, DEQ must develop a method to more accurately map the state’s wetlands, the full inventory of which is incomplete. Such a map could more accurately estimate the wetlands that could lose protections because of federal and state action, the EO reads.By the end of Cooper’s term, the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources must issue a reporting identifying permanently conserved and restored areas, with a baseline year of 2020.DEQ must also publish a report on the environmental value and social costs and benefits of conserving natural and working lands, including wetlands. The agency also is directed to estimate the flood risk that could result from the lack of wetlands protections.And within two years, DNCR must publish an analysis of climate change’s effects on biodiversity, natural lands and waters.

Finally, state property allocated to cabinet agencies and the Department of Administration are subject to a native plant policy (no Bradford pears, for example). That means these agencies can use only seeds and plants that the USDA has classified as native to the Southeast, North Carolina or one of its counties. There are few exemptions, such as turf crops, botanical and historical gardens, and special plantings for wildlife.

“It is inspiring to see recommendations from the state’s Natural and Working Lands Action Plan being elevated as priorities in this executive order,” said Katie Warnell, senior policy associate at the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability at Duke University. “The order’s ambitious goals for land conservation and restoration will preserve and enhance the many benefits North Carolina’s natural and working lands provide to everyone who lives in or visits the state.

“The executive order also addresses many data gaps and limitations previously highlighted in the action plan, which hinder planning for the sustainable management of North Carolina’s lands and waters.”

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: info@ncnewsline.com. Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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