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Q&A: Director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on national funding in eastern North Carolina

FILE - Martha Williams Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, center, talks with Jimmy Laurent, regional energy coordinator for U.S. Fish and Wildlife, left, and Thomas Harris, Secretary for the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, as they visit the B-5 orphan well site in the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge in Lottie, La., Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023.
Gerald Herbert
/
AP
FILE - Martha Williams Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, center, talks with Jimmy Laurent, regional energy coordinator for U.S. Fish and Wildlife, left, and Thomas Harris, Secretary for the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, as they visit the B-5 orphan well site in the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge in Lottie, La., Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023.

In April, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced $27.25 million from the federal Inflation Reduction Act will be invested in the Albemarle-Pamlico Sound.

The funding will help support several restoration projects at national wildlife refuges throughout eastern North Carolina, such as improving water quality at Lake Mattamuskeet, reducing the impacts of saltwater intrusion at Alligator River, and protecting wetland habitats at Cedar Island.

USFWS Director Martha Williams spoke with WUNC recently to discuss this funding and its implications.

This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.


This $27.25 million that we’re talking about is part of a larger pool of money going to several different states, but North Carolina is receiving the biggest portion. Why is U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service having such a focus on eastern North Carolina?

"We have a number of national wildlife refuges in eastern North Carolina. The communities have been very impactful in lifting up their work and the desire for us to be part of their communities and invest in this area. They've needed this investment, and these projects were ready to go. Everyone had already identified these areas as being really ready to undertake this restoration work, so we could get it going quickly."

Martha Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, testifies before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on President's proposed budget request for fiscal year 2024 for her agency, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, May 16, 2023.
J. Scott Applewhite
/
AP
Martha Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, testifies before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on President's proposed budget request for fiscal year 2024 for her agency, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, May 16, 2023.

What is the significance of this round of funding compared to past funding initiatives?

"It's a once in a generation investment in this work that we do with all of our partners... $27.25 million is not something we've had available to invest in this Albemarle Pamlico estuary. We haven't had that investment before."

What criticism, if any, do you anticipate your agency may get about these projects or this funding? And how do you respond to that?

"I don't know that we get criticism actually on this kind of investment because we've worked so closely with the communities. We've gotten money out the door really quickly compared to some other agencies.

"I'd say the only complaint is the worry down the road when we don't have this investment anymore… How do we have the people to continue to support important work like this? As far as I have heard, the complaints are more the worries of what happens when and if the funding goes away."

And then how do you respond to those worries?

"I respond — let's keep showing how we make a difference. Let's be better talking about what the impacts are to these communities. For them to see that the flooding is better, that the coastal erosion is less, that they can see how species recover, that they know that water quality is better. I think it's for us to show why we're making a difference, and the more we do that, the more people will support investing in this kind of ecosystem restoration work."

The issues we’re seeing in eastern North Carolina – such as saltwater intrusion, decreasing water quality, the slow loss of shoreline – these are all problems we’re seeing in other coastal areas too. So how do efforts here in eastern North Carolina inform your work in other parts of the country?

"We're constantly learning, right? We've now been able to put these projects on the ground and learn what works or maybe what doesn't work as well. So, what we do in eastern North Carolina can be an example for us elsewhere."


Celeste Gracia covers the environment for WUNC. She has been at the station since September 2019 and started off as morning producer.