Charlotte Observer Dec. 7, 2003

Public, private initiatives show progress and promise

While North Carolina faces significant environmental problems, there's good news: A variety of environmental initiatives are working well and promise further progress. Here's a sample:

• Public and private groups such as the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund, The Nature Conservancy and a network of local land trusts have combined private and public money with creative legal initiatives to preserve some of North Carolina's most valuable lands and waters.

The Clean Water Management Trust Fund, created by the General Assembly in 1996 and financed with tax dollars, has provided major funding for preservation projects across the state aimed at protecting water. The list includes what may be the nation's largest wetlands restoration project at North River Farms in Carteret County, and preserving the Little Tennessee River Valley out west. It has protected nearly 2,500 miles of riparian buffers and 208,000 acres of land in just six years' work. Without this extremely active and forward-looking organization, North Carolina would have lost some critical natural areas and habitat in every corner of the state.

The Nature Conservancy is close to completing its admirable Forever Wild campaign, the largest private environmental fund-raising program in the state -- $25 million.

Executive Director Katherine Skinner says the organization and its donors "have done some amazing things" in the conservancy's 25 years here, working with government, businesses and individuals to preserve huge tracts in eastern and western North Carolina. It has completed work on 21 of 25 projects identified for preservation, including large stretches of the Roanoke River basin and is about to finish its work on preservation of the Little Tennessee River.

• Every year or so, public and private groups and businesses collaborate on saving some unique feature of our state -- Bird Island in the east, Jocassee Gorges in the west, for example. Within a few weeks, the Needmore tract on the Little Tennessee River will be added to that impressive list. The Clean Water Management Trust Fund, the Nature Conservancy, the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee and a host of other groups and agencies are completing work on preserving a $20 million tract that "acre for acre ... has a richer natural and cultural history than any other in Eastern North America," according to the land trust.

The project encompasses 4,400 acres along the river in Macon and Swain counties in a region that is "among the most threatened and biologically important in all of North Carolina," says the Nature Conservancy. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the N.C. Natural Heritage Trust Fund and other donors are participating in the project.

The Needmore tract -- so named, the story goes, because residents of the isolated area kept telling a mail carrier they always needed more of this or that -- is just one example of the scores of projects that land trusts, state preservation funds and private groups acquire each year for preservation.

• Wildlife restoration programs are showing good results. The red wolf was reintroduced successfully in eastern North Carolina several years ago. Now an elk restoration project in the Cataloochee Valley in western North Carolina's portion of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is showing signs of success. Biologists imported 52 elk from Kentucky, Tennessee and Canada in two groups in 2001 and 2002. Their numbers have grown since then, drawing visitors daily to the park to watch the 800- to 1,000-pound animals graze.

Some fish species are making a comeback after decades of overfishing. Red drum, a fast-growing fish that the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries long regarded as depleted, is now recovering. The reason likely is the limits the agency put on recreational and commercial fishers, restricting the daily bag limit and size of fish that can be taken. That allowed small red drum to grow larger and generally increase the supply of these popular sports fish.

• State and local governments are creating new parks. The General Assembly has authorized the Mayo River and Haw River state parks in the northern Piedmont, though it did not fund the parks. Wake County is just one of a number of local governments creating new parks with the help of local land trusts and the Clean Water Management Trust Fund. Land trusts are also pursuing natural areas and refuges across the state, including valuable lands on the Deep River and the Haw in the Piedmont.

• Restoration of streambeds and creation of new wetlands. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Department of Transportation are cooperating on a host of initiatives, including a new Ecological Enhancement Program that uses transportation money to create new wetlands and compensate for environmental resources that are destroyed or altered in highway construction projects.

One such project is the reconstruction of South Buffalo Creek in Greensboro, a stream that once meandered through much of the city but suffered in recent decades from erosion and straightening. Another project helped purchase an 800-acre addition to the Eno River State Park. "We haven't seen that another state is doing this on the scale that we are doing it," says DENR's Bill Ross.

Mecklenburg has a number of such projects in the works on Little Sugar, Irwin, Stewart, McIntyre and Caldwell Station creeks.

• Eastern North Carolina's Neuse River has long been regarded as one of the most polluted on the East Coast. A Pew Foundation report described part of it as a Dead Zone; millions of fish died there in low-oxygen periods this year.

But there is good news as well: A concerted state effort to reduce the amount of harmful nutrients released into the 250-mile river appears to have had a beneficial effect. Nitrogen concentrations -- which boost harmful algae growth -- are down and the river is cleaner that it was in 1998, according to scientists at a conference last month. No one is pronouncing the river recovered, but the strict limits on nitrogen for businesses, farmers and municipalities appear to be working.

• Municipal design projects are doing a better job of collecting stormwater runoff. Huntersville in Mecklenburg County has adopted a Low Impact Design program for use in a variety of projects. It contemplates the use of such design features as rain gardens and grassy ditches, known as swales, instead of concrete curbs and gutters to hold stormwater and let it soak in rather than filling up storm drains.

The city of Washington on the Pamlico River has remade its waterfront area in recent years, designing its stormwater collection system to carry runoff to newly created wetland areas rather than injecting them directly into the Pamlico.

These success stories should remind the public that environmental efforts have a positive effect -- and an educational one, says DENR's Ross: "It broadens the definition of what conservation is."

2003 Charlotte Observer and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.