Environmentalists have complained about a steady erosion of funding for long-established protections in recent years, first due to a sour economy and then because of an anti-regulatory climate in the legislature.
But one major source of conservation funding continues to protect streams, greenways and other projects across the state – from elk habitat in the mountains to a historic battlefield in the Triangle – although with far less money than it had a few years ago.
The Clean Water Management Trust Fund, administered under the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, recently approved a new round of grants totaling more than $19 million, which will help pay for 50 projects in 30 counties.
The legislature set up the fund 19 years ago to conserve natural resources. It now includes funding to preserve cultural heritage sites and buffers around military bases.
Currently, there is $55 million in active contracts. The fund comes from an annual appropriation in the state budget and from a portion of the sales of specialty license plates.
“We’re protecting what we have today for tomorrow, for future generations,” said Bryan Gossage, executive director of the fund.
PRESERVING HISTORIC BATTLEFIELD, ELK
Historic sites such as the Bentonville Battlefield in Johnston County are being preserved with money that had come from a separate source: the Natural Heritage Trust Fund. The legislature reduced and merged the heritage fund with the clean water fund, expanding its mission.
Bentonville was one of six historic sites chosen last year to receive a total of $1.2 million in grants, which will be matched by other agencies or nonprofit groups. A grant of about $490,000 will enable the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources to acquire 158 acres, with a matching grant of just over half that amount from the American Battlefield Protection Program.
Union and Confederate troops engaged on the first day of battle on all but one of these several parcels, during what was the largest battle fought in North Carolina during the Civil War, March 19-21, 1865. It was the only significant attempt to defeat Gen. William Sherman’s march through the Carolinas.
A $1.2 million grant goes to the state chapter of the Conservation Fund for its project establishing a habitat for elk. The nonprofit organization intends to convey more than 1,500 acres to the state Wildlife Resources Commission. An additional $1.2 million is near the top of a provisional list, to be disbursed as additional funding comes in.
The Conservation Fund, which reports it has preserved more than 200,000 acres in the state, has been a longtime beneficiary of the state grant program.
“The Clean Water Management Trust Fund is the most important state funding source for land and water conservation,” state director Bill Holman said.
It provides matching funds for large organizations like his as well as smaller groups, local governments and state agencies, he said, noting the N.C. Forest Service and the state parks compete for the grants.
The elk project also protects the drinking water supply in Maggie Valley, Holman said.
The Conservation Fund has also used the grant funds in a partnership with the state Forest Service on the new Headwaters State Forest in Transylvania County, and helping to expand Mount Mitchell in Yancey County.
LESS MONEY BUT HAVING AN IMPACT
The $19 million in grants this year pales in comparison to the $100 million fund that had been in place until Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, used it in 2009 to help balance the budget. The Republican-led General Assembly that took over in 2011 appropriated only $11.5 million for the fund, as it looked for cuts across the board.
But the transfer of the Natural Heritage program and additional money in the budget this year beefed things up a bit.
“The state is still making progress protecting land and water resources,” Holman said.
Applications for grants are reviewed by a nine-member board appointed by the governor and General Assembly.
Although the fund was slashed in 2011, the grants are meant to provide matching funds that lead to a much bigger investment in conservation.
“We require a match for most of them,” Gossage said. “In many cases you’re looking at dollar for dollar or even more. Then $20 million ends up being much more than that. There is probably a $30 million to $40 million impact.
Here’s how the money is spent
Land acquisition at military bases: $3,487,253
Land acquisition non-military: $10,902,914
Stream restoration: $4,126,442
Innovative stormwater: $704,197
Donated mini-grants: $100,000
by Dan Kittay Jan 3, 2016