If the budget recently enacted by the General Assembly becomes law, the state’s forestry division would move from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
The proposal has drawn fire from environmental groups, green-friendly lawmakers, and DENR officials. They say the move would give logging interests too much sway over forestry management, and that a regulatory shift of this magnitude should be done apart from the budget process. Backers of the measure counter that DENR violates the property rights of forests owners and that since tree farms make up much of the state’s timber resources, the agriculture department would do a better job managing and marketing lumber products while protecting public access and recreational use.
In a radio address, Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, said the state budget is “gutting” DENR. “It’s bad,” she said. “It’s worse than anything I can imagine. They are being raided, wiped out. This strategy by the new leadership makes no fiscal sense. It’s not a good move.”
DENR Director of Communications Diana Kees said a big move like this should be subjected to the scrutiny of a comprehensive study by an outside organization before it is approved. “There’s not any one right way to organize,” she said. “They use different models in different states. We’re saying ‘let’s study this and make deliberate choices before we move forward.’”
Environment North Carolina State Director Elizabeth Outz said her organization opposes the idea. “It doesn’t have a budget justification,” she said. “It’s not going to save the state money. It doesn’t have a point to it. It’s not thoughtfully crafted and it will have some repercussions. DACS doesn’t have a conservation mission. This transfer of power from a conservation agency to an agricultural production agency could affect the health of our forests.”
Grady McCallie, the policy director at the North Carolina Conservation Network, also objects to the way it’s being handled. “This is a significant budget choice that needs significant thought,” she said. “The legislature would be wise to go slowly and look at the implications instead of rushing through.” McCallie also fears the conservation component of the equation will be lost if the division is given over to DACS.
In contrast, Americans for Prosperity North Carolina State Director Dallas Woodhouse said changing hands from one agency to another would put forest management where it belongs. “Forests are not museums, and the division of forestry is moving from an agency of heavy-handed regulation to one that has a lighter footprint, more cooperation and marketing,” he said. “I think it will benefit taxpayers because it will make sure our forests have some value. It benefits property owners because they will be able to use their property as they see fit.”
Woodhouse sees the move, along with the removal of the Division of Soil and Water from DENR’s grasp, as long overdue. “It’s a good thing, anything we can get out from under DENR,” he said. “Hopefully, this will make DENR a decimated shell of its former self. Cutting it back is a good step, but it’s not enough. We need to get North Carolina out from the crushing regulations of DENR. That’s the important thing.”
Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, whose district includes DuPont State Forest, a 10,340-acre tract in Transylvania County, worried that the transfer might affect the management of the forest. Friends of DuPont Forest Board President Kent Wilcox said his grass-roots organization has been on “pins and needles” since it heard about the plan. Wilcox said his group was most concerned about the area becoming another tree farm to be stripped and logged for large financial gain.
His organization asked state legislators to approve legislation guaranteeing DuPont Forest will continue to provide recreation, education, conservation, and protection of natural and historical resources for generations to come. “We’re not choosing sides in this argument,” Wilcox said. “We can’t choose sides. The key thing is the people have a voice that speaks for conservation and natural resources. We’re trying to communicate how it’s been managed to protect its natural and historical resources and how we want to keep it that way.”
McGrady said he wasn’t in on the initial discussion to switch the Division of Forest Services from one agency to another, but he worked with Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, Sen. Jim Davis, R-Transylvania, and Rep. David Guice, R-Transylvania, on a way to codify the recreational and conservation values of DuPont State Forest and to maintain its scenic beauty.
As a result, the DuPont tract was designated in a special provision as a state recreational forest. DACS Commissioner for Policy and Legal Affairs David McLeod said DuPont State Forest and other recreational forest areas should not face any major changes. Even though most forests across the state are considered timberland, he said public access will be protected. In particular, McLeod said the DuPont State Forest is managed for multiple uses and DACS wants to keep it that way.
“It’s a great resource,” he said. “We plan to maintain the status quo there.” McLeod said his department did not seek out the change of the Division of Forest Services from DENR to DACS, but he said it makes more sense because the majority of forestry areas are agricultural resources. He said if the provision is approved, the entire N.C. Division of Forestry will make the move with little disruption.
“We are excited and looking forward to it,” he said. “We plan for this to be seamless. People shouldn’t notice the difference. We don’t have any major changes planned at present.”
Both McGrady and Wilcox said they hope DACS will be more willing to help DuPont build much-needed hiking and equestrian trails, parking lots, roads, bathrooms, and a visitor center for the 50,000 people who enjoy the area every year. Wilcox said DENR never has trained people to build trails, nor is it part of the agency’s mission to provide recreation and other vital services.
“DENR doesn’t have those skills,” he said. “This is an area where they have been lacking. In all these years they wouldn’t make money available to really make this superb jewel of North Carolina shine.”
Karen Welsh is a contributor to Carolina Journal.