NEW BERN – The N.C. Coastal Federation today will honor more than a dozen people, including scientists, educators, regulators and a commercial fisherman, with the nonprofit environmental group’s 12th annual Pelican Awards.The awards are intended to honor and recognize the work of people, businesses, local and state governments, organizations and educators to protect and restore the N.C. coast. They will be presented during a dinner 5:30-8 p.m. today at the N.C. History Center in New Bern.
Lauren Kolodij, the federation’s deputy director, said the award winners have demonstrated commitment and undertaken meaningful actions to protect the coast. “We are thrilled to recognize the exceptional work of this year’s winners. They are a great group of people who have done so much to help protect and restore our beautiful coast,” she said.
Since 2003, the federation has presented the Pelican Awards to advocates for coastal preservation and to those who have worked against efforts that could undermine the federation’s goal of a healthy and productive coast.
Among the winners this year are Ron Sutherland of Durham and Fred Cubbage of Raleigh, who will get awards for leading the fight to protect the Hofmann Forest in Onslow and Jones counties. A key component of the watersheds for the White Oak, Trent and New rivers, the forest is owned by N.C. State University, which wanted to sell it for commercial agricultural development. In one of the great conservation victories in recent memory, the university this year decided instead to develop a plan to preserve it as a working forest.
After the university announced in 2013 its plans to sell the 79,000-acre research forest to a group of timber and agribusiness investors, Sutherland and Cubbage led what would become a two-year, statewide fight to save the forest. The two were the main plaintiffs in a lawsuit that contended that the forest was state land and thus subject to a mandated review of the sale’s potential environmental effect. The N.C. Supreme Court had taken the case when NCSU announced earlier this year that the Hofmann was no longer for sale. Trustees for the university’s endowment fund selected in early June Virginia-based environmental-protection organization The Conservation Fund with support from the Atlanta-based law firm Sutherland, Asbill and Brennan to manage negotiations for permanent conservation easements to protect sensitive areas of the forest.
Although conservation efforts related to the forest continue, Cubbage said he was happy to see all parties involved recognize its value.
“I think it’s a great step forward in protecting a very rare natural and managed ecosystem that would certainly protect it from future development and needless exploitation in the future,” Cubbage said.
Sutherland said he sees the Hofmann deal as a “hopeful sign” that conservation still enjoys a broad base of support in North Carolina.
“We had Republicans and Democrats marching and protesting together to save this public treasure,” Sutherland said. “With everything else going on, it is comforting to know that we can find a way to stand up for things that will never be replaced if we don’t act. From Wildlands Network’s perspective, we also think Hofmann is an important example of connectivity conservation – the land was valuable in part because it helped connect other major wildlife properties, such as Croatan National Forest to Camp Lejeune.”
Sutherland said Hofmann also demonstrates that it can’t be taken for granted that public parks and forests are truly protected for the long term. Politics can change almost anything, he said.
“All it takes is for one influential person to start pushing a sale and the process snowballs quickly unless the public mobilizes to save their natural legacy,” Sutherland said. “I hope that we’ve set the bar pretty high in North Carolina with our Hofmann work, but we also got lucky. If the price of corn hadn’t collapsed when it did, Hofmann might already be owned by the out-of-state farm group that wanted to destroy so much of the forest. We need to change the dialog so people stop seeing our state’s wild areas as empty places on the map, places to fill in with roads, shopping malls, golf courses.”
He said the Pelican Award is a tribute to the hard work of all of the thousands of people who joined together to save Hofmann Forest when the need arose.
“People were willing to believe Fred and me when we said it was possible to stop the sale – and with that kind of support and hope against the odds, we were able to mount a really strong effort,” Sutherland said. “I always said Hofmann was a campaign that we could win – and I’m glad to have been proven right, but we’re not done yet. The last thing we need to do is let down our guard now. So we need to be vigilant and organized until the entire 79,000-acre tract is protected by easement or conservation purchase.”
The federation will present its Lifetime Achievement Award to Patti Fowler of Beaufort, chief of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries’ Shellfish Sanitation and Recreational Water Quality Section, for her contributions to the coast and the federation.
Calling her “a true champion of the coast,” the federation said Fowler had dedicated her life to the protection and restoration of coastal and shellfish water quality. Her 33-year career with the N.C. Shellfish Sanitation Program created an atmosphere within her agency that put the welfare of the people and coastal resources she serves as her top priority, according to the federation.
“For decades she has stuck to the facts, science and law and has resisted political pressures refusing to compromise the health of our coastal resources,” the federation said in its award citation. “By doing so, she was able to hold the line against unreasonable requests to sacrifice our shellfish resources.”
The federation called Fowler “a consistent and reliable resource” helping to inform her fellow government employees and the public about the need to address stormwater runoff as the top source of pollution of coastal waters and shellfish.
Fowler said she valued her longstanding relationship with the federation and its director, Todd Miller.
“I can remember 33 years ago when Todd came into our office and was telling us about his vision for the Coastal Federation and what he wanted to do,” Fowler said. “I wondered how and what we could do to help them. What better way to use the data we collect than to sort of be a marker. Our shellfish waters are the highest quality and that’s a good measure of how we’re doing.”
She said her work has also proven valuable to other state agencies and through those partnerships water quality has been improved.
“We created a whole new methodology on how we collected that data. We made it more useful. It was always gratifying to me see that someone other than us can use that data in some way,” Fowler said.
Above and Beyond
Pelican Awards will also go to two professionals for going beyond their day-to-day duties to work toward a healthy coastal environment. Two winners in particular come from fields not typically associated with environmental advocacy.
Dewey Hemilright of Wanchese, a spokesman for the commercial fishing industry who serves on a federal council and several advisory committees in addition to working with local, state and national advocacy organizations, is to be recognized for his contributions to education and outreach programs. Hemilright has taught hundreds of students during the past three years about the importance of working as a commercial fisherman and the industry’s reliance on water quality.
Born in Kitty Hawk, Hemilright fishes out of Wanchese. He said he’s not your typical environmental advocate, but the federation appeals to him in ways other environmental organizations do not.
“I found we have a lot of similar values,” he said. “Something that is unique with the Coastal Federation is that they practice what they preach, meaning more hands-on involvement. They walk the talk, they’re in the community in what they do. The staff in the Manteo office believe in what they do, they’re involved in the community and they lead by example. Their hearts are in it and they’re making differences.”
Hemilright said that when he got involved a few years ago with the federation’s education programs, the hands-on approach and the presentation to students appealed to his personal work ethic.
“So many times in environmental education, the kids get brainwashed. The Coastal Federation is showing you about it, they’re not just telling you about it. It’s not just about putting out a nice, shiny pamphlet,” he said in a phone interview from a fishing boat in Bristol Bay, Alaska.
Meanwhile, Rick Shiver of Wilmington will be recognized for his research contributions strengthening the federation’s position against Titan Cement. Shiver, a geologist, became involved with the federation following his 30-year career as a regulator with the N.C. Department of the Environment and Natural Resources. He offered expertise in groundwater management and state permitting to help the federation in its efforts to stop Titan Cement from building a plant on the banks of the Northeast Cape Fear River. The company’s plans include drawing large amounts of groundwater from the Castle Hayne and Pee Dee aquifers.
“That’s not only going to influence wells nearby, there are also real concerns about the wells that serve the county. It will impact withdrawals from the county well field and nano-treatment center the public has paid for,” Shiver said. “One of the things I’ve learned is North Carolina does not have huge water resources. I think with the growth in the state and global warming and climate change, I have real concerns with the future of our water resources.”
Shiver also credited the federation’s approach as a reason he became involved.
“The people were professionals and had done their homework and knew what the issues were,” Shiver said of the federation’s role in the Titan fight. “It’s important for there to be checks and balances and they did it honestly and the way it was supposed to be done. It was factually based and professional in dealing with you, it wasn’t combative.”
He said there are powerful political forces in North Carolina working to get rid of state environmental regulations.
“Hopefully as time marches on, the voters will show an interest and go to the polls and vote their preferences for the environment,” Shiver said.