The News & Observer, Dec. 14, 2003

Program a boon for parkland

By RICHARD STRADLING, Staff Writer

The destruction of streams and wetlands for new roads is producing a windfall of parkland and nature preserves in the Triangle.

A new state program designed to make up for the environmental damage done by highway construction has made nearly $13.9 million available for land conservation in the Triangle since June. The money is helping make land deals totaling more than 3,800 acres, including a planned state natural area along the Haw River in Chatham County and the first pieces of a proposed regional park in southeast Wake County.

More are on the way. The Ecosystem Enhancement Program -- a joint effort by the departments of Transportation and of Environment and Natural Resources -- will spend an estimated $100 million in state and federal highway money during the next two years to protect wetlands and streams statewide.

That could nearly double what the state otherwise would spend on land conservation, and parks departments and private land trusts have scrambled to apply for it.

"It's going to be a one- to two-year sprint to take advantage of this," said Doug Nicholas, spokesman for the Triangle Land Conservancy, a private land trust that has been granted about $6.8 million from the program so far to buy land in Wake, Orange, Johnston, Chatham and Lee counties.

By law, the DOT must make up for streams and wetlands it damages by restoring, enhancing or preserving them elsewhere. For every 10 acres of wetlands the department preserves, for example, it can fill or pave one acre.

The DOT tries to preserve land fairly close to the land being destroyed. The $2.4 million allotted to buy part of Pleasant Green Farm along the South Fork of the Little River in Orange County, for example, will compensate for streams damaged by road projects from the Triangle to west of Winston-Salem.

Money from the Ecosystem Enhancement Program covers from 5 percent to 100 percent of the cost of preserving a piece of land, depending on the amount of streams and wetlands involved. Parks departments and conservation groups often combine the money with that from other sources, such as the state's Natural Heritage Trust Fund.

For example, the program will provide about a third of the $6.9 million needed to buy 814 acres known as the Eno Wilderness in Orange County, a planned addition to Eno River State Park.

"Without that program, it's hard to say we could have gotten any other funding from other sources," said Lori Olson, executive director of the Eno River Association, a private group that helped raise money for the project.

The state has hired the Conservation Trust for North Carolina, an umbrella organization for local land trusts, to identify wetlands and stream valleys to preserve. Executive Director Reid Wilson said many trusts have lists of landowners interested in conserving land.

The program replaces the state's old system of compensating for environmental damage done by roads. The old program emphasized restoration of streams and wetlands through engineering and landscaping but had trouble meeting the federal government's goal of "no net loss" of wetlands.

The new program, with the blessing of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will spend two years developing a new approach to restoring streams and wetlands. During that transition, it will pour unusual amounts of money into preserving wetlands and streams.

Some environmentalists criticized the emphasis on preservation when it was announced last year, saying that buying wetlands doesn't bring back those that are lost. But state officials say they will continue restoration work during the transition period.

Wilson said he has no misgivings about preserving land with money generated by the destruction of wetlands and streams.

"My view is, the roads are going to be built one way or another," he said. "At least as a consequence of that, a whole lot of land and important bodies of water and wetlands are going to be protected forever."