Monday, February 12, 2024

Governor Cooper Signs Executive Order Setting Statewide Conservation Goals for Forests and Wetlands

On Monday, Governor Cooper joined state officials and environmental protection advocates to take executive action and set new goals to protect and restore North Carolina’s natural resources.
Feb 12, 2024

On Monday, Governor Cooper joined state officials and environmental protection advocates to take executive action and set new goals to protect and restore North Carolina’s natural resources. Executive Order No. 305 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.

“North Carolina’s rich natural beauty is not only critical in our fight against flooding and climate change, but important to our economy,” said Governor 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.”

The Order sets statewide goals for North Carolina public and private partners to collectively achieve the following by 2040:

  • Permanently conserve 1 million new acres of forests and wetlands.
  • Restore 1 million new acres of forests and wetlands.
  • Plant 1 million new trees in urban areas.

In addition, this Executive Order:

  • Establishes a Native Plant Policy for North Carolina State Government, expanding the policy implemented by the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources to apply to all future state-owned projects.
  • Directs the state to avoid or minimize new projects that would adversely impact vulnerable wetlands like pocosins, Carolina Bays, and mountain bogs.
  • Directs state agencies to study the social, economic, and environmental value of protecting North Carolina’s wetlands, particularly wetlands that recently lost state and federal protections.
  • Directs agencies to go after federal funding to protect and restore wetlands to enhance flood resiliency, improve water quality, and sequester carbon.
  • Directs agencies to promote and support new and ongoing conservation and restoration, and climate resiliency efforts within tribal communities.
  • Directs Department of Natural and Cultural Resources to research impacts of future climate conditions on the state’s biodiversity.

According to the 2024 North Carolina Greenhouse Gas Inventory, the State’s natural and working lands like forests, wetlands, and healthy farms absorb 34% of all of North Carolina’s greenhouse gas emissions. Without bold action like the one being taken today, studies show North Carolina will continue to lose natural and working lands, decreasing not only important natural heritage, but removing a key tool to fighting climate change. Forests and wetlands help control flooding when hurricanes and bad storms strike. Trees in urban areas offer cooling shade during hot months, improve air quality, and provide green spaces for recreation.

The goals and directives in this order were developed based on years of public engagement and seeks to implement transformative recommendations from the 2020 North Carolina Natural and Working Lands Action Plan and other existing efforts.

“Preserving more natural and working lands will enhance quality of life, increase recreation opportunities, and protect air and water quality,” said N.C. 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.”

“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.

"North Carolina has set a game-changing target to conserve and restore millions of acres while addressing climate hazards and nature equity in urban areas,” said, Sara Ward, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Nature Based Resiliency Coordinator. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is particularly excited about the emphasis on the state’s internationally significant peatlands, known as pocosins, in today's action.”

“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, The Nature Conservancy North Carolina Chapter.

“Now more than ever, North Carolina needs to conserve our working lands—including wetlands and forests that reduce flooding, clean our drinking water, and sustain fish and wildlife. We’re grateful for the robust commitment this executive order makes toward protecting natural resources and providing good stewardship of our state’s valuable lands.” Grady O’Brien, North Carolina Conservation Network.

Read the Order here.

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