DuPont State Forest, a 10,400-acre mountain jewel known for its trails and waterfalls, is caught between competing state agencies as legislators whittle away at the state's environment department.
Hikers, bikers and horseback riders prize DuPont, which is near Brevard about 100 miles west of Charlotte and named for the corporation that once owned it. The state fought hard to create it, flexing its power of eminent domain to acquire the heart of the forest from a developer in 2000.
Uncertainty over its future arose this spring. Legislators plan to move the state Forest Resources division, which manages the forest, from the environment department to the agriculture department.
The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which will also be hit hard by budget cuts, is fighting to keep control of DuPont. It says Agriculture and Consumer Services doesn't have the expertise to manage the forest.
Forest lovers, meanwhile, are worried that agriculture officials would view DuPont's stands of white pine and hardwoods as another cash crop. While DuPont has been used for recreation, the only other state forest, Bladen Lakes in southeastern North Carolina, is regularly logged.
Local legislators think they have a solution.
The measure naming DuPont the first "state recreational forest" maintains its current uses. The state could cut trees for money only if the governor and council of state approve.
Rep. Chuck McGrady, a longtime conservationist who helped create the DuPont forest, endorses the legislation introduced by Sen. Tom Apodaca. Both are Republicans from Henderson County.
"What's interesting about DuPont is that while its users are diverse, they have done a really good job about getting along," McGrady said. "With those user groups happy (with the legislation), I'm really pretty comfortable about no (management) change being made."
The environment department, which runs the 215,000-acre state park system, says DuPont doesn't belong in Agriculture's hands.
About 160,000 people visited last year.
DENR is "the only agency in state government that has the experience, capacity and funding mechanisms to run this property the way the people of North Carolina want it to be managed," said assistant secretary David Knight.
The department had a plan to jointly manage the DuPont forest as a state park on its western side and a state forest, where hunting would be allowed, on the east, Knight said. DENR also has access to money from the state parks trust fund for the restrooms, parking lots and visitors center that DuPont users have clamored for.
Agriculture and Consumer Services says it plans no changes on how the forest is used.
"From everything we've heard, (users) seem pleased with the job the current management has done and the way the forest has been used," said department spokesman Brian Long. "We don't see any need to upset the apple cart."
Agriculture has some experience in managing land, including about 10,000 acres of native plant habitat, and in obtaining grants for property improvements, he said. Long noted that management would continue under the same division, Forest Resources, even if it moves to Agriculture as expected.
Friends of DuPont Forest, a group of volunteers, supports the recreational-forest measure. Vice President Fred Roane acknowledged reservations about Agriculture's ability to manage the forest.
"That's why the special language was introduced," he said. "We don't care where on the organizational chart the forest falls as long as the present use is maintained."