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Change Is In The Air For DENR, State Parks

Jockey's Ridge
Dave DeWitt

Governor Pat McCrory is expected to release his state budget proposal this week. It will likely spark the usual fights over Medicaid and teacher pay. But buried inside the budget will be a major reorganization of state government that could impact the millions of visitors to North Carolina’s state parks, science museums, aquariums, and even the Zoo.

The move involves the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the various attractions it manages: two science museums in Raleigh, 35 state parks, three aquariums, even Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head.

Those attractions could, at least organizationally, be on the move.

“The North Carolina Zoo, and the state aquariums, museums and our state parks, we think, need to move from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to the Department that actually manages attractions, and is part of our missions, and that’s Cultural Resources,” said Governor Pat McCrory in his State of the State address last month. “And that’s what we’re going to begin to do.”

While he gave few details, the move from DENR to the Department of Cultural Resources would involve $75 million in the budget and affect about 1,000 employees spread out across 50 sites in the state.

“This allows what will be the Department of Energy and the Environment to focus specifically on that regulatory mission,” said State Budget Director Lee Roberts, referring to DENR by a proposed new name. “We then have a new Department of Cultural and Natural Resources that can focus on the management of these very important state assets.”

Roberts says this particular move isn’t going to reap big savings or lead to sizable budget cuts, as much as it will improve function.

Nature Research Center
Credit Mark Turner/Wikimedia Commons
DENR manages the Nature Research Center in Raleigh.

  “It won’t be an exact one-for-one change, but there’s not a significant budgetary change for either department other than the effect of the merger itself,” he said.

Environmental groups are taking a wait-and-see approach. They point to the importance of state parks in providing environmental education and access to research. In that way, being under DENR made sense.  

Another thing to keep an eye on is how the Department of Cultural Resources manages the move, as the department would more than double in size overnight.

“You’re basically going to transform the Department of Cultural Resources,” said Mary Penny Kelly, the past president of the Friends of State Parks and a former DENR attorney and executive. “I’ve heard somebody say it’s going to be a culture shock for cultural resources, and I think that’s a good motto to think about as you’re tackling this task.”

Executing the task will likely be a push-pull between DENR and Cultural Resources, as they decide who and what will go where.

“So there’s always a little bit of a tug-of-war between the departments,” said Kelly. “The department who is losing the division is trying to hold back, usually its central office staff. And the receiving department is looking to get as much as they can, so they can add to their budget and not be short-handed.”

The plan to move the state parks, the zoo, the aquariums, and the museums will be outlined in McCrory’s proposed budget this week and in more detail by next month.

The legislature will then have a chance to modify or approve the proposal.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Feature News Editor. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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