In 1969, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act “to encourage harmony between humans and the environment, promote efforts to prevent or eliminate damage to the environment, stimulate the health and welfare of humans and enrich the public’s understanding of ecological systems and natural resources nationwide.” In 1970, Congress passed the National Environmental Education Act “to promote teaching about the environment in K-12 classrooms.”
These laws stimulated leaders at the state level, including North Carolina, to develop strategies to address environmental literacy among their residents. In 1971, Governor James Holshouser Jr. established an Environmental Education Task Force to develop a formal plan for environmental education. In 1973, the General Assembly passed the North Carolina Environmental Education Act to encourage, promote and support the development of programs, facilities and materials for environmental education in North Carolina.
With the support of the N.C. Department of Administration and a grant from the federal agency then known as the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, the task force published A State Master Plan for Developing Environmental Education Programs in North Carolina in 1974. The plan identified several priorities for environmental education, including recommending the creation of a central coordinating agency. The plan called for better coordination of environmental education efforts and information; a cataloging of existing programs, materials and facilities and a statewide program to train teachers in environmental education. Unfortunately, continued funding for implementation of the 1974 General Master Plan was not made available. Thus, responsibility for furthering environmental education within state government fell back into fragmented programs with little financial support.
In 1989, Bill Cobey, the Secretary of the agency that is now the Department of Environmental Quality, announced that environmental education would be the highest priority in the department. He asked that immediate steps be taken to review the effectiveness of current educational efforts, to identify opportunities for new or expanded activity and to recommend a plan of action.
In March 1990, an agency Environmental Education Team presented its Final Report and Recommendations to the Secretary. Building on the previously published Master Plan, the report called for these actions:
- Eliminating the duplication of delivery of environmental education to public officials and the general public
- Creating a central office that could supply answers to public inquiries about environmental education resources
- Providing a means of communication between programs
- Developing a set of commonly acceptable guidelines to be used by everyone who plans environmental education programs
- Conducting a systematic evaluation of environmental education materials and supplying guidelines for teachers trying to select materials
- Creating a comprehensive catalog of existing personnel, materials or facilities that would be useful in environmental education
- Creating a central record of environmental education sources
- Assigning responsibility for the planning of environmental education
- Developing a statewide program for training teachers in environmental education
- Producing a cadre of teachers in each independent school administrative unit who are qualified and experienced in using environmental education materials
- Producing a standardized requirement for environmental education proficiency on a statewide basis
- Delivering environmental information to a larger sector of the citizenry than is normally reached through formal education programs
- Establishing a repository for bibliographies and reference materials on environmental education
The report recommended, among other things, the establishment of an Office of Environmental Education, a long-term funding base for environmental education programs and designated education specialists in each division of the department. In April 1990, Governor Jim Martin asked Linda Little, the director of the Governor’s Waste Management Board, to lead the new office, which was to be the state’s clearinghouse for environmental education. In 1993, the General Assembly passed the second generation Environmental Education Act and authorized continued funding in the state budget for the Office of Environmental Education’s staff and operations. North Carolina was among more than 30 states that passed similar legislation. Although many other states passed similar legislation, only a few have state-funded offices dedicated to environmental education. In 1995, the Office of Environmental Education presented the first N.C. Environmental Education Plan to Martin’s successor, Governor Jim Hunt, and the General Assembly. The plan was developed over an 18-month period. During that time, the office solicited input from more than 1,300 people at seven regional public meetings.
In the summer 2010, the N.C. General Assembly changed the Enabling Legislation for the N.C. Environmental Education Act consolidating the Office of Environmental Education and the Office of Public Affairs into the N.C. Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs.
For more than two decades, the Office of Environmental Education has guided and supported the work of individuals and organizations that provide environmental education in North Carolina and the state’s environmental education plan has served as a guiding framework for its work.