On Monday, Governor Cooper signed Executive Order No. 305, which sets new goals to protect and restore the state’s natural resources in cooperation with other state officials and advocates of environmental protection.

The order is “the most significant executive action to protect the state’s ecosystems since Governor Jim Hunt launched the “Million Acre Initiative” in 1999 and sets the most ambitious environmental conservation and restoration targets in the State’s history,” according to the press release.

“North Carolina’s rich natural beauty is not only critical in our fight against flooding and climate change, but important to our economy,” said Cooper. “As our state continues to grow, we must be mindful to conserve and protect our natural resources and this historic Executive Order sets clear goals and puts a plan in place that will help us leave our state better than we found it for generations to come.”

Goals include permanently conserving 1 million new acres, restoring 1 million new acres of forests and wetlands, and planting 1 million new trees in urban areas.

“Preserving more natural and working lands will enhance quality of life, increase recreation opportunities, and protect air and water quality,” said North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources Secretary Reid Wilson. “From promoting native plants to creating more parks, this landmark Executive Order will benefit North Carolinians today and long into the future.”

According to the 2024 North Carolina Greenhouse Gas Inventory: “…the updated estimates show land use and forestry sequestered 34% of statewide gross GHG emissions in 2020, which represents more carbon sequestration than previously reported.”

The order establishes a native plant policy for the North Carolina state government, expanding on the policy implemented by the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Additionally, the order directs the state to: avoid or minimize projects that would adversely impact vulnerable wetlands; to study the economic, social, and environmental value of protecting state wetlands; pursue federal funding to preserve and restore flood resiliency, improve water quality, and sequester carbon; and, to promote and support new and ongoing conservation and restoration and climate resiliency efforts within tribal communities. Lastly, the order “directs the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources to research impacts of future climate conditions on the state’s biodiversity,” according to the press release.

“This Executive Order positions North Carolina to take a science-based approach to achieving mutually beneficial goals relating to environmental quality, economic development, resiliency, and ecosystem enhancement by identifying and protecting our forests and natural and working lands,” said DEQ Secretary Elizabeth S. Biser.

The goals and directives of the order were developed based on public engagement research over several years and “seeks to implement transformative recommendations from the 2020 North Carolina Natural and Working Lands Action Plan and other existing efforts,” according to the press release. 

“Given all the tremendous pressures facing North Carolina’s lands and waters, we are excited to be a part of this ambitious and important initiative,” said North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission Executive Director Cameron Ingram. “We look forward to continuing to work with our State agency and non-profit partners to support the conservation of land to benefit wildlife and their habitats while providing opportunities for North Carolinians to enjoy hunting, fishing, boating, and wildlife associated recreation.”

“Protecting and restoring natural areas is vital for the future of North Carolina. They ensure clean air, clean water, and recreational opportunities in a rapidly growing region. And, they are also crucial to our continued economic growth, most of which is centered on our natural resources.” Katherine Skinner, Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy North Carolina Chapter.

Cooper has issued similar executive orders targeting Democratic environmental and climate policy goals.

In June 2021 Cooper signed Executive Order No. 218, which “reaffirms North Carolina’s commitment to creating clean energy jobs, increasing economic opportunities, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions through the expansion of offshore wind power.”

In October 2018 he issued Executive Order No. 80, “North Carolina’s Commitment to Address Climate Change and Transition to a Clean Energy Economy.” The order asserted the State of North Carolina was committed to supporting the 2015 Paris Agreement (Paris Climate Accords) and its commitments to the United States Climate Alliance.

Executive orders are often aspirational documents, setting policy goals the executive would like to see, but which would require legislative authority and action to accomplish. The North Carolina General Assembly has never made legislative commitments to the United States Climate Alliance, nor the Paris Agreement, an international agreement which former President Donald Trump pulled out of in 2017.

Cooper’s office has come under scrutiny for accepting funds from the United States Climate Alliance to pay for staff positions dedicated to pursuing United Nations climate goals.