Gov. Pat McCrory, who rarely misses an opportunity to accuse the federal government of overreach, is now targeting the Department of Interior and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over regulations on a national wildlife refuge.
Yesterday McCrory and Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler toured Tyrrell and Washington counties, where Tropical Storm Hermine dumped five to 10 inches of rain last weekend. During a stop near Columbia and Creswell in Tyrrell County, McCrory remarked that “federal government regulations of the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge is compounding flooding issues on these farms,” according to a press release from his office.
McCrory also “highlighted how the federal government is trying to convert farmland into swampland, and that the state is continuing its effort to protect North Carolina farmers and economic development.”
However, McCrory omitted key financial, scientific and political information from his statement: That corn, soybeans and cotton — the major crops in the area — are heavily subsidized by the federal government, including crop insurance subsidies and disaster payments. For example, Tyrrell County farmers received more than $64 million in federal payments from 1995–2014, according to the Environmental Working Group’s farm subsidy database.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture also paid more than $1 million to Tyrrell County farmers as part of its Conservation Reserve Program. This is a yearly rental payment in exchange for farmers removing environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and planting species that will improve environmental quality.
Coincidentally, McCrory met with Jett Ferrbee, a real estate developer, who, in 1997, purchased more than 1,000 acres in both counties for soybean farming and hunting/recreational uses. ( Ferebee, who complained to WRAL that his soybeans are under water because the refuge is full of water — in a part of the state that was once a swamp — received $100,000 in federal payments from 1995–2014. Three-quarters of that money came from the conservation reserve.
Ferebee, who has described himself as a “McCrory fan,” is the main force behind ridding the Pocosin and other public and private lands of the endangered red wolf, essentially because they compete with human hunters for game, as NCPW reported last week. The federal government illegally released red wolves on private lands and falsified data, Ferebee has alleged, although an Inspector General’s report found no evidence to support his accusations.
The Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge plays an vital role in the ecosystem, harboring migratory birds, endangered species and other wildlife, such as black bears. But its health is jeopardized by agriculture and logging. Because the pocosins are rooted in peat, essentially the remains of decomposing plants, some of it 15 feet deep, the refuge protects the area from catching fire.
Areas of the pocosin have been cleared, ditched and drained to create farms, thus drying out the peat. And when peat catches fire, it burns deep underground, where it can smolder for months. In 2008 and 2009, the Evans Road fire was caused by lightning striking the ground and igniting the peat, which burned 50,000 acres. The plume of smoke could be seen from space and even extended into central North Carolina. Peat also stores carbon, which when released, contributes to greenhouse gases and in turn, climate change.
It is true that the federal government is trying to restore the hydrology of about a third of the 100,000-acre pocosin refuge. However, only a portion of that project drains into canals on private land. The federal government is building a second berm in a 1,300-acre restoration area, as well as draining excess water through the existing ditch network to the Pungo River.
From the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:
Though the goals of the Refuge are wildlife related, health and safety issues are uppermost in our reasoning for all management actions. Past wildfires on refuges in northeastern North Carolina and Southeastern Virginia have resulted in hundreds of thousands of acres burned, tens of millions of dollars spent to extinguish. Smoke generated by peat fires have caused increases in respiratory issues resulting in emergency room visits in areas miles away from those wildfires. Hydrology restoration reduces the frequency and intensity of fire in the pocosin.
The choice for McCrory and the farmers is clear: Fire or water?