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Program cuts could impact road, environmental decisions

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Advocates say budget cuts undermine a state program used to make preservation and building decisions across North Carolina.

The Natural Heritage Program’s staff has shrunk from 20 to six people as legislators slashed the budget by more than half over the last two years, to $675,000, The News and Observer of Raleigh reported Saturday.

The program compiles information about North Carolina’s natural resources. Government agencies and conservation groups use it when deciding where to preserve land or locate a park. The Department of Transportation, the military and private companies, including Duke Energy and International Paper, use it for environmental permitting decisions.

Colin Mellor, who’s responsible for environmental permits at DOT, said it’s taking longer to get information needed to make decisions on where and how to build roads. The latest cuts in September — which further reduced the budget to $450,000 — could lead to road project delays, he said.

Former GOP Gov. James Holshauser created the program in 1976 to create a publicly-accessible database of the state’s endangered plant and animal species and their habitats, with the goal of making smarter decisions about land conservation.

“If it’s not restored, then we won’t have the data that we need to prioritize how state dollars are being spent and how conservation groups are spending their limited dollars,” said Will Morgan with the N.C. Nature Conservancy. “We’ll be basically driving in the dark because we will be making decisions without all the information.”

Rep. Chuck McGrady said restructuring helps explain the latest cuts. The program’s move from the prior Department of Environment and Natural Resources to the new Department of Natural and Cultural Resources obscured the impact, he said.

“With all the moving parts, in my view, we made a bit of a mistake,” said McGrady, a Henderson County Republican who co-chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

Another issue is that legislators don’t know about the program, he said.

It’s “sort of low profile and some may think it’s a feel-good program,” McGrady said, adding that he’s willing to push to restore money next year. “This sort of work needs to be done if you’re going to have road projects and if we’re going to know how to allocate money through the Clean Water Management Trust Fund.”

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