By Todd Cohen
RALEIGH, N.C. — Last year, The Colbert Report on Comedy Central lampooned a bill introduced by a North Carolina state lawmaker to bar the state Coastal Resources Commission from defining rates of sea-level changes for regulatory purposes.
“The bill as originally introduced was written in a way that seemed to indicate the legislature was mandating that the oceans not rise,” says Brian Buzby, executive director of the North Carolina Conservation Network. “They scaled back the bill, but they essentially put their heads in the sand.”
The bill, and the national publicity, helped drive a surge in the number of citizens who subscribe to a weekly email public alert from Conservation Network to 25,000 from 14,000, and in the number of its Facebook friends to 10,000 from 4,000.
Now, seeing serious threats to the environment and to environmental policy in the areas of air quality and energy, water quality and quantity, and land conservation and open space, the Conservation Network is expanding its staff to strengthen its community organizing and communications.
A growing number of policy decisions “are taking the last three to four decades of a very balanced approach of environmental protection and economic development,” Buzby says, “and throwing that out the window.”
Formed in 1998 and operating with an annual budget of $800,000 and a staff of eight people, the Conservation Network serves nearly 100 affiliate environmental groups throughout the state.
It communicates with its member groups every day by email, phone or in person, distributes a weekly email message to its 25,000 activist subscribers on a current topic they can act on, and posts daily Facebook updates on campaigns it is waging on issues, inviting people to get involved.
The Network’s use of social media includes raising awareness about new studies and breaking news about the environment, as well as celebrating North Carolina’s environment.
The organization generates 40 percent of its revenue through contributions, 31 percent from grants, 12 percent from contracts, 9 percent from affiliate dues, 6 percent from an online auction, and 2 percent from investment interest and miscellaneous sources.
The auction, which raised $20,000 last fall, has grown by inviting affiliates and activists to donate items, such as the use of their beach houses or their business services, an approach that Buzby says not only generates more revenue but helps the Network better engage and know its supporters.
And with the environment facing critical challenges, Buzby says, the role of advocacy has becoming increasingly important.
A report last year by the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association estimated, conservatively, that the state is home to over 15,200 clean energy jobs at 1,100 companies in 86 of the state’s 100 counties and that those companies generate over $3.7 billion in annual revenues, he says.
“North Carolina has had a long history of working hard and working together to balance environmental protection with a strong economy, and creating a state where businesses want to come and people want to move, because it has a reputation of a strong education system, good jobs and a clean environment,” he says.
“But what we’re seeing in the past few years, and it seems to be accelerating, is that we are moving back to the old paradigm of jobs versus the environment,” he says. “And that’s really not how the world works.”