Losing Our Natural Heritage

Development and Open Space Loss in North Carolina
Released by: Environment North Carolina Research & Policy Center

North Carolina’s signature woodlands, farmlands, and open spaces are disappearing at an alarming rate.  If these trends continue, the state’s treasured natural areas will disappear as vast tracts of land are developed into urban areas in the next twenty years.

This report examines development rates in North Carolina over the last twenty years, and uses those results to make conservative predictions about loss of cropland and forestland over the next twenty years.  Among the reports findings: 

Between 2007 and 2027:

  • North Carolina will lose another two million acres of forest land and cropland.
  • The Triangle will lose 37 percent of its natural areas; cropland will disappear altogether.
  • The Charlotte area will lose 30 percent of is natural areas, including nearly a quarter of its forest land, the highest rate of forest loss in the state.
  • Developed area in the state will increase by 38 percent, compared to a 30 percent increase in population.

In the last twenty years, North Carolina has lost 2.37 million acres of cropland and forest land, an estimated 325 acres every day. 

In the last twenty years:

  • Charlotte, the state’s largest metro area, lost 25 percent of its total cropland and forest land for a total of 270,000 acres, the highest percentage loss in the state. 
  • The Triangle region saw 24 percent of its cropland and forest land transformed.  The region lost 283,000 acres of cropland and 123,000 acres of forestland.
  • The Triad region (Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point) lost 14 percent of its cropland and forest land, a total of 236,000 acres.

From 1987 to the present, developed land in the state has grown by 1.86 million acres.

  • The Triangle region has more than doubled its developed acreage, adding 327,000 acres.
  • Rural counties in the Piedmont region have added an estimated 322,000 acres of development.
  • The Charlotte area has added 321,000 acres of developed land, an increase of 88 percent.

Over the same period, population has grown by 40 percent- remarkably fast, but slowly in comparison to the growth of developed acreage, which has increased 65 percent. 

Recommendations

The report’s projections for loss of natural areas over the next twenty years are based only on the trends of the past.  North Carolina’s leaders have the power to alter projections for the future.

In 2006, the NC General Assembly established the Land and Water Conservation Study Commission to examine ways to finance a significant increase in funding for the state’s existing land conservation programs—the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, the Natural Heritage Trust Fund, the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, and the Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund—as well as to fund new initiatives to capitalize on economic opportunities associated with land conservation.

After numerous meetings and three public hearings, attended by more than 1000 citizens, the Commission recommended $1 billion in additional funds over the next five years—less than one percent of the state’s budget—for land conservation programs.   

This increase in funding, if approved by state leaders, can ensure the protection of additional 260,000 acres of forests, farmlands, trails, parks, gamelands, and other natural areas, and more than 6000 miles of river and stream buffers across the state.  The recommendations of the Land and Water Conservation Study Commission, if adopted, would go a long way towards protecting the state’s natural areas in the face of rapid development.