History of DEQ

North Carolina began enforcing game laws in 1738, even before statehood became a fact. Today we identify that act as the beginning of the process to form what we know today as the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ.

In 1823, the North Carolina Geological Survey was formed, and by 1850, the state had embarked on an ambitious earth sciences program to include physical sciences and agricultural and forestry functions. In 1905, the N.C. Geological Survey was renamed the N.C. Geological and Economic Survey – the forerunner organization to DEQ.

State direction on environmental matters picked up speed as the 20th century dawned. As early as 1899, the State Board of Health was given some statutory powers over water pollution affecting sources of domestic water supply.

The state employed its first graduate forester in June of 1909, leading to the creation of the North Carolina Forest Service in 1915. When it was established, the service’s task was to prevent and control wildfires.

Also in 1915, the state parks system was born when Gov. Locke Craig moved the General Assembly to save Mount Mitchell before loggers could ruin it. Legislators created Mount Mitchell State Park in response to the governor’s request.

That same year federal and state laws were passed to protect watersheds and streams. The General Assembly established the North Carolina Fisheries Commission Board, charging it with the stewardship and management of the state’s fishery resources. The board has the administrative power to regulate fisheries, enforce fishery laws and regulations, operate hatcheries and carry out shellfish rehabilitation activities.

By 1925, the North Carolina Geological and Economic Survey took another step in its evolution, becoming the Department of Conservation and Development. The new department consolidated many natural resource functions. Its original focus was on geology, but its involvement in managing many other associated natural resources also grew.

Although the Great Depression slowed business at all levels, public programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) were a boon to North Carolina’s natural resource programs. More than 76,000 CCC workers fanned out across the state, constructing fire towers, bridges, erosion control dams and buildings, planting trees and fighting forest fires. Many of the facilities in our state parks built by the CCC are still in use today.

The N.C. Forest Service established its nursery seedling program in 1924, adding a management branch in 1937 and creating a State Parks Program as a branch operation in 1935. A full-time superintendent of State Parks was hired and the stage was set for parks management to develop into division status by 1948.

By the late 1930s, interest had declined in managing the state’s geological and mineral resources, the function that has sparked the organizational push for natural resource management in the first place. Geological and mineralogical investigations at federal and state levels were poorly supported financially. From 1926-1940, the Division of Mineral Resources was figuratively a one-man show, operated by the State Geologist.

The war years (1938-1945) provided new impetus for state involvement in managing North Carolina’s geological and mineral resources thanks to the need for minerals to meet wartime shortages.

The state and the U.S. Geological Survey undertook an ambitious cooperative effort in 1941, beginning with a groundwater resources study. That effort continued through 1959, when the Department of Water Resources was formed. Also in 1941, North Carolina conducted a far-ranging study of geology and mineral resources in the western regions of North Carolina in cooperation with the Tennessee Valley Authority.

A long legislative struggle that lasted three full sessions of the General Assembly brought the state’s first comprehensive, modern water pollution control law in 1951. The cornerstone of North Carolina’s early 19th Century effort to affect our environmental lifestyle - water and geology - was finally being forged into law.

The N.C. 1951 State Stream Sanitation Act (renamed in 1967 as the Water and Air Resources Act) became the bedrock for today’s complex and inclusive efforts to protect the state’s water resources. The act also provided an important part of the legal basis for today’s water pollution control program. It established a pollution abatement and control program based on classifications and water quality standards applied to the surface waters of North Carolina.

By 1959, the General Assembly had created the Department and Board of Water Resources, moving the State Stream Sanitation Committee and its programs into the new department. In 1967 the agency was renamed the Department of Water and Air Resources. The department remained active in water pollution control and continued to develop a new air pollution control program.

The N.C. Forest Service expanded its comprehensive services from the 1950s through the 1970s, as did many of the state agencies concerned with the growing complexity of environmental issues. The nation’s first Forest Insect and Disease Control Program was set up within the division in 1950. The Tree Improvement Program began in 1963. The Forestation Program was added in 1969 and the first Educational State Forest became operational in 1976.

For the first half of this century, North Carolina’s state parks grew simply through the generosity of public-spirited citizens. Appropriations for operations were minimal until the State Parks Program was established within the N.C. Forest Service in 1935. The parks were busy sites for military camps in the 1940s, but isolated leisure spots for most of the years before and after World War II.

Steady growth in park attendance, and a corresponding need for more appropriations to serve that growth, surfaced in the early 1960s and continues today. The 1963 State Natural Areas Act guaranteed that future generations will have pockets of unspoiled nature to enjoy. The 1965 Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund required the state to have a viable plan for park growth.

The General Assembly pumped new financial life into the state park system with major appropriations in the 1970s for parkland acquisition and operations. By the mid-1980s, visitation at state parks had risen to 6 million visitors per year. Facilities were taxed to the limit and a new era of parks expansion and improvements was beginning.

In the 1960s, the need to protect fragile natural resources was evident on several fronts. The Division of Geodetic Survey began in 1959; the Dam Safety Act was passed by the General Assembly in 1967, and North Carolina became the first state to gain federal approval of its Coastal Management Program with the 1974 passing of the Coastal Area Management Act. By the early 1970s, the state’s involvement in natural resource and community lifestyle protection bore little resemblance to the limited structure of state organizations of the late 1800s.

The Executive Organization Act of 1971 placed most of the environmental functions under the N.C. Department of Natural and Economic Resources. The act transferred 18 different agencies, boards and commissions to the department, including the functions of the old Department of Conservation and Development. As some of the titles changed and some of the duties of the earlier agencies were combined or shifted, the stage was set for the 1977 Executive Order that created the Department of Natural Resources and Community Development. That brought together not only the growing community development programs but pulled the always popular North Carolina Zoological Park (created in 1969 and expanded continuously since) and the Wildlife Resources Commission under the Natural Resources and Community Development umbrella.

During the mid-1980s, however, a growing need developed to combine the state’s interrelated natural resources, environmental and public health regulatory agencies into a single department. With the support of the administration, the General Assembly passed legislation in 1989 to combine elements of the Department of Human Resources and the Department of Natural Resources and Community Development (NRCD) into a single Department of Environment, Health, and Natural Resources.

Three of the old NRCD divisions (Community Assistance, Economic Opportunity, and Employment and Training) were transferred to other departments. The remaining divisions were combined with the Health Services Division from the N.C. Department of Human Resources to form the new agency. The creation of the Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources (DEHNR) ushered in a new relationship between the environment and the health of the state’s communities and citizens.

From 1989 to 1997, new DEHNR divisions were formed, others split and still, others expanded in both manpower and regulatory authority. The increases and changes were in response to a new awareness that North Carolina’s growth was exacting a high price on natural resources.

The new agencies included the Office of Minority Health and its Minority Health Advisory Committee, legislatively created in 1992. The Governor's Council on Physical Fitness and Health and Healthy Carolinians 2000 followed. The state's three aquariums merged into one office inside DEHNR in 1993 and the Museum of Natural Sciences followed suit the same year.

The Office of Environmental Education was created in 1993 to educate the public – and North Carolina youth in particular – about what constitutes the environment that supports us. Several of the department's health agencies were altered to meet public concerns about infant mortality, AIDS, septic tank systems and rabies. Those and other administrative changes between 1990 and 1996 resulted in an increase in the department's staff. Staffing reached 4,650 by 1997. The growing response to environmental problems brought an infusion of money for inspectors, new regulatory powers and expedited permitting processes.

North Carolina’s state parks system received major attention in the mid-1990s. Voters approved a $35 million bond package in 1993 for capital improvements to a deteriorating park system and land purchases to expand some parks. Two years later, the General Assembly for the first time gave the troubled parks system a dedicated source of funding – 75 percent of what the state had been taking from the excise tax on real estate tax transfers was directed to support state parks. Funding for the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund for state park land acquisition, capital improvement and maintenance was changed to direct appropriations by the 2013 General Assembly.

As the 1990s dawned, legislators allocated substantial sums of money for programs to clean up the most dangerous of 10,000 underground gasoline storage tanks thought to be leaking at any given time in the state. Some of the state's gasoline tax revenues have been earmarked to help owners clean up tank spills.

By the mid-1990s, the fund was facing a deficit because of the overwhelming costs involved and the large numbers of underground tanks potentially leaking beneath North Carolina's soil. The department also began to respond to new concerns about fish kills, polluted streams and run-off of nitrogen and other substances into rivers and creeks. In 1995 and 1996, animal waste spills into rivers in eastern North Carolina led to a stiffening of waste management requirements; the addition of inspectors to its water quality and its soil and water conservation divisions; and training requirements for farm operators.

With the health functions of DEHNR growing at a rate matching the growth of environmental pressures, the 1996 General Assembly divided the department once again. On June 1, 1997, health functions were transferred to the Department of Human Resources – which changed its name, as well. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) was born.

In 2000 the General Assembly passed the million-acre goal into law. The law established a goal for the state of North Carolina to protect an additional 1 million acres of farmland, open space and other conservation lands. Consequently, much of the department’s focus during the 2000's was on making progress towards this goal, including the development of the One North Carolina Naturally initiative and of the Coastal Habitat Protection Plan.

In 2002 the General Assembly, responding to concerns about public health impacts and loss of mountain views from air pollution, passed the landmark Clean Smokestacks Act. The legislation required significant reductions of harmful air pollutants, such as NOx and SO2, from the state's 14 coal-fired power plants. The Clean Smokestacks Act also had the benefit of decreasing mercury emissions and set the stage for the state's ongoing efforts to address climate change impacts in North Carolina.

As North Carolina's population grew at historic rates during the 2000s, so did the environmental challenges posed by this unprecedented growth. DENR led efforts to protect water quality through the enactment of more stringent stormwater regulations in urban areas and in the state's coastal counties. In addition, the General Assembly passed the Solid Waste Management Act of 2007, which strengthened existing landfill regulations and established new parameters to guide the state's efforts to manage its solid waste disposal.

After several years of drought, which led to water shortages for numerous residents and businesses across all regions of the state, the General Assembly, with support from the administration, approved legislation intended to help the state better manage periods of drought. The 2008 Drought bill included provisions to improve water use data; to reduce drought vulnerability; and for quicker response to water shortage emergencies.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources saw another big change with the opening of the Green Square Complex in 2011 and 2012. Green Square is a two-block, multi-use sustainable development project that puts together in downtown Raleigh most of the state’s environmental offices and an 80,000 square-foot Nature Research Center focusing on current scientific research. The complex incorporates the most current sustainable design strategies and is designed to cost less to operate and maintain by employing energy- and water-efficiency techniques. The Green Square Complex is designed to meet the highest standard in environmental efficiency and design.

During the past decade, North Carolina has experienced significant investments in natural resource areas and attractions. The state acquired and operates two iconic mountain destinations, Chimney Rock and Grandfather Mountain as state parks, thanks to the actions of the General Assembly as well as state, local and private partners.

In recent years, state lawmakers have reorganized the department several times and eliminated or moved programs to other state agencies. The first large round of changes came in 2011 when state legislators reduced appropriations for the state’s natural resources conservation trust funds, transferred the N.C. Forest Service and Division of Soil and Water Conservation to the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. That same year, the General Assembly eliminated the Division of Environmental Health and moved parts of that division into other state agencies. Also in 2011, the state legislature put in place reforms to reduce environmental regulations.

In 2013, Pat McCrory's administration placed great emphasis on increasing the agency's efficiency by streamlining its regulatory functions and expediting permitting. The agency's mission was rewritten in 2013 and a budget bill renamed DENR the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, and moved the state natural resources (the three coastal aquariums, the state parks, the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and the N.C. Zoo) to the newly renamed N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. The budget also moved the Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the Natural Heritage Program to what is now called the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (formerly known as the Department of Cultural Resources). 

In 2014, the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission and DEQ completed draft rules for the exploration and production of oil and natural gas in the state. The rules address hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, well construction, closure, setbacks, disposal of wastewater, and other requirements to protect public health and the environment. The rules were adopted by the commission in 2014, then reviewed by the General Assembly and took effect in March 2015. 

In February 2014, an estimated 39,000 tons of coal ash spilled into the Dan River in Eden after a stormwater pipe beneath an ash pond at Duke Energy's Dan River Steam Station ruptured. The spill prompted heightened measures to address and clean up coal ash ponds and led to the enactment of the Coal Ash Management Act of 2014. The law set the state on a path to clean up the state's coal ash ponds by strengthening environmental and health regulations. It also put Duke Energy on a timetable to close all its coal ash ponds, closed loopholes in state laws to strengthen regulations, eliminated special exemptions for utilities and increased regulatory authority to ensure dam safety and protect water quality. DEQ staff and its federal and state partners have devoted significant resources and time toward cleaning up coal ash, protecting water quality and carrying out the requirements of the Coal Ash Management Act.

Governor Roy Cooper named Michael S. Regan Secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality on Jan. 3, 2017. As DEQ secretary, Regan oversees the state agency whose mission is to protect North Carolina’s environment and natural resources. The organization has offices from the mountains to the coast and administers regulatory and public assistance programs aimed at protecting the quality of North Carolina’s air, water and land, its coastal fisheries, and the public’s health.

Secretaries of Environment and Natural Resources1

Name Residence Term
Roy G. Sowers2 Lee 1971
Charles W. Bradshaw, Jr.3 Wake 1971-1973
James E. Harrington4 Avery 1973-1976
George W. Little5 Wake 1976-1977
Howard N. Lee6 Orange 1977-1981
Joseph W. Grimsley7 Wake 1981-1983
James A. Summer8 Rowan 1984-1985
S. Thomas Rhodes9 New Hanover 1985-1988
William W. Cobey, Jr.10 Orange 1989-1993
Jonathan B. Howes Orange 1993-1997
Wayne McDevitt11 Madison 1997-1999
Bill Holman12 Wake 1999-2001
William G. Ross Orange 2001-2009
Dee A. Freeman Wake 2009-2013
John E. Skvarla, III Moore 2013-2014
Donald R. van der Vaart Wake 2015-2016
Michael S. Regan Wake 2017-present


  1. The Executive Organization Act, passed by the 1971 General Assembly, created the Department of Natural and Economic Resources with provisions for a secretary appointed by the governor. The 1977 General Assembly took further steps in government reorganization, renaming the agency the Department of Natural Resources and Community Development. NRCD was reorganized and renamed by legislative action in the 1989 General Assembly.
  2. Sowers was appointed by Governor Scott and served until his resignation effective November 30, 1971.
  3. Bradshaw was appointed by Governor Scott and served until his resignation in 1973.
  4. Harrington was appointed on January 5, 1973, by Governor Holshouser to replace Bradshaw. He resigned effective February 29, 1976.
  5. Little was appointed on March 1, 1976, by Governor Holshouser to replace Harrington.
  6. Lee was appointed on January 10, 1977, by Governor Hunt to replace Little. He resigned effective July 31, 1981.
  7. Grimsley was appointed on August 1, 1981, to replace Lee. He resigned effective December 31, 1983.
  8. Summers was appointed on January 1, 1984, by Governor Hunt. He resigned effective January 5, 1985.
  9. Rhodes was appointed January 7, 1985, by Governor Martin to replace Grimsley.
  10. Cobey was appointed by Governor Martin in January 1989.
  11. McDevitt was appointed by Governor Hunt in August 1997.
  12. Holman was appointed by Governor Hunt in September 1999.