On a cozy autumn evening at the luxurious Umstead Hotel in Cary, a medley of corporate luminaries, state lawmakers and environmentalists made small talk and mingled over drinks. The occasion: the formation of a new “unconventional partnership” with a “bold mission.”
North Carolina Forever , said Kathy Higgins, vice president of corporate affairs at Blue Cross Blue Shield, “will bring together diverse interests” to encourage “reasonable and necessary investments” in land conservation and water protection.
“It shall be the policy of this State to conserve and protect its lands and waters for the benefit of all its citizenry … to acquire and preserve park, recreational, and scenic areas, to control and limit the pollution of our air and water ….”
She concluded: “We’re grateful to Smithfield Foods,” which started a similar group, Virginiaforever, 10 years ago, “for bringing us this model.”
NC Forever appears to invite the lambs to lie down with the lions: Environmental Defense Fund, NC Coastal Federation and Audubon Society of North Carolina, pl us several parks nonprofits, are joining groups with dubious environmental histories: global pork producer Smithfield Foods, agribusiness advocates the NC Farm Bureau, mining and quarrying company Martin Marietta, and the NC Forestry Association, which represents primarily the interests of the timber industry.
Nonetheless, the nonprofit plans to lobby state lawmakers to appropriate much-needed money to conservation programs, such as the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which have sustained major cuts over the past seven years. From 2000 to 2017, state appropriations to the trust fund have declined by more than half, from $40 million to $18 million .
“We want to protect the state’s special places and try to restore investment to historic levels,” David Kelly, manager of North Carolina political affairs at Environmental Defense Fund  and an NC Forever board member, recently told Policy Watch.
The appropriations, Kelly said, would go to “targeted programs, most of which are under the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources or the Department of Agriculture. None of the sought-after funding is for “discretionary spending,” Kelly said, such as general water quality protection within the Department of Environmental Quality.
A mainstream advocacy group, EDF has successfully worked with large corporations, such as Walmart and McDonald’s, to become more environmentally conscious. (Before being appointed as North Carolina Secretary of the Environment, Michael Regan worked in energy efficiency and climate policy at EDF.)
But NC Forever allies can work at cross-purposes on environmental protection. For example, last September, Lanier Farm, owned by Murphy Brown/Smithfield, illegally discharged swine waste into the Trent River in Jones County — hardly “protecting” the state’s waters as laid out in NC Forever’s mission.
The farm has an extensive and years’-long history of violations, according to DEQ and Agriculture Department records, but still operates.
Meanwhile, the pork industry has repeatedly lobbied — often successfully — for favorable legislation,  such as curbing residents’ right to bring nuisance lawsuits against swine farms.
The NC Forestry Association’s members are nearly all lumber, paper or wood pellet companies; the nuisance law also applies to timber operations and related industries.
The mining and stone-aggregate interests won a legislative battle last year when lawmakers passed House Bill 56 . It sharply limits public input on those operations once DEQ issues the permits, now good for “life of site.”
These contradictions explain Higgins’ comment at the kickoff: “We’re focused on funding, not regulatory issues.”
“Those concerns are real,” Kelly said. “When the partners come together, we recognize that we will disagree on some issues. But working together, we hope our shared goals are more meaningful than our points of disagreement.”
Several of the state’s environmental groups are not part of NC Forever: Among them are the Sierra Club, Appalachian Voices, Environment North Carolina, Clean Water for North Carolina and the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.
Conspicuous also by its absence is the Conservation Trust for North Carolina . Mary Alice Holley, communications and marketing director for the trust, said her organization has a “robust interest in land conservation” but has chosen to put its weight behind Land For Tomorrow .
The Land for Tomorrow coalition is composed of only environmental groups and works on the same issues, including appropriations to the trust funds over clean water, parks and recreation, and farmland preservation, as NC Forever plans to do. (Audubon North Carolina and the NC Recreation and Park Association belong to both Land for Tomorrow and NC Forever.)
To prepare for the short legislative session later this spring, NC Forever has commissioned RTI in Research Triangle Park to examine the state’s historical funding levels for conservation. The report is due in April or May.
NC Forever also has hired lobbyists Elizabeth Biser , a former director of DEQ legislative affairs, and Chris McClure , who has served as executive director of the state GOP. Armed with data, they will present a legislative agenda that includes funding for riparian buffers, agriculture water resource programs, oyster bed restoration and ferry-based water quality monitoring program.
Bill Ross , served as Secretary of the Environment under Gov. Mike Easley from 2001–2009. (He also was named acting secretary for two weeks in January 2017 before Gov. Cooper announced Regan’s appointment.) He now works for the law firm Brooks Pierce, which employs Bisler and McClure as lobbyists.
“Partnerships are the way things get done,” Ross said. He noted that other collaborations have resulted in better environmental protection. Private landowners, forestry associations and state and federal government agencies worked together in the Southeast to restoring the stands of longleaf pine, which had been logged by near extinction by the early 20th century.
“We understand that some partners may be in conflict outside NC Forever, even in litigation,” he added. “But we need more people working together, and we think it’s important to give it a try.”
Smithfield Foods started Virginiaforever  more than 10 years ago after cuts to conservation programs placed the state at nearly the bottom of the nation in terms of funding. Virginiaforever is the model for its North Carolina counterpart, taking into consideration the differences in political climate between the two states. Its membership roster is larger, with 42 members, a function of the group’s longevity. The roster includes the Potomac Conservancy and the Virginia Association for Parks, as well as Dominion Energy and DuPont, whose representative Robert L. Dunn is retired from the company.
Individuals can join Virginiaforever for $100 to $1,000; nonprofit dues range from $500 to $2,500; and businesses can become members for $1,000 to $15,000, according to the group’s website.
The organization’s 2016 tax returns show it collected nearly $63,000 in membership dues, with another $47,600 in fundraising. It reported a loss of $7,000 for the year, from expenses related to fundraising events, new opinion recruitment and opinion surveys. Yet with other assets, the group had a positive balance of $135,530. None of the board or staff is paid, according to the documents.
Policy Watch posed several questions via email to Virginiaforever regarding the group’s other donors, if they exist, and achievements. Kendall Tyree, the group’s vice-chair and the executive director of the Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, did not answer those questions directly. Instead, Tyree provided a statement and directed Policy Watch to the group’s website.
“Our advocacy efforts over the years have helped protect existing funding and secure millions of dollars from the Virginia state budget for important natural resources programs including the Water Quality Improvement Fund and the Virginia Land Conservation Fund,” Tyree wrote.
Despite the organization’s efforts, since 2014, Virginia still only spends about 1 percent annually of all funding sources in the budget on natural resources, state parks and recreation. These numbers are part of a report released last September by the company Fiscal Analytics.
Virginiaforever has called for a total state investment of $833.7 million from 2015–2019 for land conservation and another $805 million for water quality. Lawmakers have provided about half of that money, the report stated.
Virginiaforever does have cachet with some powerful state lawmakers. In part, this is because legislators have received “Bridge Builder” awards from the group in honor of their across-the-aisle efforts.
Rep. Kirk Cox , an ultra-conservative Republican, was recently elected House of Delegates speaker — the Virginia version of North Carolina’s House Speaker Tim Moore. Cox received the Virginiaforever’s Bridge Builder award last year for his “keen interest in protecting natural resources.”
But his primary attribute appears to be his political power. He has been a member of the state’s appropriations committee, and now as House Speaker, he can set the chamber’s agenda. As for his environmental bonafides, he advocated for raising water levels in Lake Chesdin, near Petersburg, to add volume to the reservoir. (It serves as a drinking water supply and a recreational lake, similar to Jordan Lake.)
Cox’s proposal failed, though, when scientific studies showed increasing the height of the dam would flood nearby wetlands and harm the environment.
Cox also supported coal ash legislation for the Chesterfield plant, south of Richmond. Operated by Dominion, the plant’s coal ash storage is adjacent to a public park. Cox supported a request for additional time to study the possible closure of the Chesterfield coal ash basin — hardly a bold stance.
The Virginia League of Conservation Voters  is a nonprofit member of the group. Lee Francis, VLCV communications manager, said that he believes funding levels for land conservation, better agricultural practices and stormwater improvements is higher for Virginiaforever’s efforts.
VLCV does disagree with some of its fellow corporate members, Francis said, “but the purpose of Virginiaforever is to work with the business community on the things that we agree on. There are plenty of issues on which we disagree, and we discuss the issues in other forums.”
Ross said he looked to Virginiaforever because no other collaboration of industry and environmentalism was working on conservation issues in North Carolina. “There are a lot of effective advocates for conservation but none in this space,” he said.
Ross said NC Forever could yield other benefits besides more money for conservation. “They could have nothing to do with the group’s agenda. We may find ways to work on other issues.”
This could require major bridge-building between Democrats and Republicans. Eight lawmakers attended NC Forever’s November kickoff, many of them on opposite ends of the environmental spectrum.
Democrats Sen. Mike Woodard and Rep. Pricey Harrison were there. So were Republican Reps. Chuck McGrady, Larry Yarborough, Steve Ross, and Donna McDowell White and Sens. Tamara Barringer and Andy Wells.
Harrison has long championed environmental legislation, as has Woodard. Woodard said that NC Forever is “trying to find a comfortable place where they can work on environmental issues together. We’ll see how it plays out policy by policy.” Beyond the cameras, Woodard acknowledged, “there was no sense a party line was being pushed.”
On the GOP side, McGrady has earned a reputation as an environmentalist. However, except for White, McGrady and the rest of the Republicans at the event voted for the bill to protect hog producers and the timber industry from nuisance lawsuits.
Wells has consistently voted against environmental protection or sponsored anti-environmental bills. He advocated for a reduction in riparian buffers, proven protections for water quality, and he opposes funding DEQ to tackle emerging contaminants in state waters.
Wells and Barringer co-sponsored Senate Bill 16 , which eased coastal stormwater rules and mining/landfill permits. It survived the governor’s veto and is now law.
Barringer, who represents part of Wake County including Jordan Lake, did not respond to a request for an interview. However, she told her fellow kickoff attendees that she was “passionate regarding land and water.”
“My father was Euell Gibbons before there was Euell Gibbons,” Barringer said. “We recycled before there was recycling. Commerce and the environment are intertwined. The question is ‘What kind of North Carolina will we have for children and grandchildren?”
And with that, the group sang the state toast and raised their wine glasses to “the land of the longleaf pine.”