Diggins points out that environmentally-friendly legislative candidates, like Democrats Janet Cowell in the state Senate and Rick Glazier in the House, won by strong margins despite being targeted for defeat by developers. And there are some "real champions" of the environment on the Republican side, she says, notably Carolyn Justice of New Hanover, who was among those the Sierra Club endorsed.
Among the statewide issues ripe for attention is cleaning up pollution from giant hog farms and processing plants in eastern North Carolina. "Governor Easley pushed an agreement on hog waste when he was first elected," says Jane Preyer, director of the North Carolina office of Environmental Defense.
"I think it's time to go for some accountability on that. We're close. The technology is out there. We just have to overcome the pork industry's lament that this will be too expensive." (Democracy North Carolina reports that the hog industry made major contributions to the campaigns of both Easley and his Republican challenger Patrick Ballantine in the 2004 elections.)
Protecting the state's coastline and wetlands from development is another big concern. Preyer says North Carolina's Coastal Habitat Protection Plan--a blueprint for preserving scarce beach-area resources--will be up for review by the end of the year, "and there will be people trying to roll it back."
Another key rollback issue is clean air. While North Carolina has made progress on reducing pollution from power plants (the state's Clean Smokestacks Act passed in 2002 requires power plants to cut emissions that boost ozone levels and smog), the Bush administration's plans to eliminate similar requirements in neighboring states could stall or reverse that headway. And the state will have to decide next year whether to keep its standards or adopt the less-stringent federal ones.
Citizen activism could make the difference, says Derb Carter, senior attorney at the Chapel Hill-based Southern Environmental Law Center. "We need people to become informed and communicate with elected representatives to let them know there is no mandate to roll back environmental protections."
In a bitterly partisan political climate, activists say the environment is one issue that unites people across party lines. So, what are the chances it could replace "social issues" as the next moral crusade? "Much of it has to do with how the message is presented," Carter says.
"Environmentalists tend, in many cases, to be too technical and bureaucratic in how we present problems. It doesn't reach as many people as a moral issue. But I think many people do believe we have that kind of obligation to protect the environment for future generations."