Pinehurst Businessman Readies to Take Over DENR
As the newest leader of the state's Department of Environment and Natural Resources, John Skvarla knows his job is simple, yet complex.
"The environment must be protected, and we will do that," said the Pinehurst businessman, who in December was tapped by Governor-Elect Pat McCrory to lead DENR. "We are not going backward.
"Look, we all live here; nobody wants to have dirty water or dirty air."
Skvarla is the CEO of Restoration Systems, a Raleigh-based company that does environmental mitigation work. He lives in Pinehurst.
The challenge for Skvarla is to protect the environment while helping businesses grow and, in turn, shrink the state's unemployment rate.
"We have a chance to make it (DENR) a real model, to protect the environment and to help the private sector grow and expand," he said "Those things are not mutually exclusive, and that is the heart of my mission."
He said there is no reason why North Carolina, which has the fifth highest unemployment rate in the United States, can't create jobs and still protect the environment.
"Regulatory agencies (like DENR) have to be in a position to say, here are the regulations, and we are here to assist you, within the confines of those rules, to be an economic benefit to the state of North Carolina," he said.
Skvarla said that those who unintentionally violate rules must be corrected and the wrongs righted, while those who willfully or intentionally violate the rules must be "punished severely."
In his role overseeing DENR, Skvarla will play an important part in how the state proceeds with fracking, the controversial method for extracting natural gas from below the Earth's surface.
Fracking, formally known as hydraulic fracturing, is important to Moore County because part of the county's northern reaches and large parts of Lee County lie within a zone believed to have large underground deposits of natural gas.
The state last year approved fracking and set up a commission and process for creating regulations to oversee fracking. No drilling can be authorized until those regulations are in place.
McCrory also has advocated the possibility of drilling for oil and natural gas offshore, meaning Skvarla will have a role in that debate as it arises in the legislature.
Skvarla said he sees his role in fracking as bringing together experts on the subject so that the best, most current information can be gathered and evaluated.
"I think it is imperative that we bring in the best and brightest minds - on all sides of the issue - to look at the issues and determine what is right for North Carolina," he said of fracking. "At this point it shouldn't be presumed to be good or presumed to be bad."
For the past decade, Skvarla has headed Restoration Systems. The company restores and protects land and water by purchasing a permanent conservation easement or fee-simple interest from property owners, and physically restoring the waterways, trees and vegetation to exceed current function and duplicate historic condition as closely as possible. Skvarla said his experience working there, along with his extensive business background, gives him a unique perspective on how to run DENR.
"I definitely think I have an advantage that very few people out there can say they have," he said.
Skvarla, 64, has been active in local affairs. He is the former chairman of the Pinehurst Historic Preservation Commission.
Skvarla resigned his post as Historic Preservation Commission chair in May 2007 after residents in a local group opposing the roundabout at Carolina Vista questioned his residency. He is the founder of the Alliance For Bonded Term Limits, which was established in 2009.
McCrory is not the first governor-elect to reach out to Skvarla to lead DENR, he said.
When current outgoing governor Beverly Perdue was elected, he declined a request by her representatives to serve, saying he wasn't ready.
"I was very, very flattered, but I said no," Skvarla said. "This time around I took it a little more seriously."
When asked by the incoming administration to head the department, he said he is now more willing and able to contribute.
"At some point you can't rail and complain unless you are willing to do something," he said. "And if my experience in the private sector - including 10 years in the environmental realm - can be a benefit, then I am glad to serve."
When he was asked to serve as the DENR head, Skvarla had only one request. He wanted to be able to hire the best people no matter their political affiliation.
"They want the very best people and they have given me free rein to organize (the department) any way I want," Skvarla said.
Skvarla said he is currently concentrating on taking things slowly, and trying to evaluate the current personnel within DENR, and consider others from outside the department to build a skilled, talented leadership team.
It is a challenge he said he is looking forward to.
"I think we have a great opportunity," Skvarla said. "I am hoping I can be a breath of fresh air for the organization."
Contact Tom Embrey at (910) 693-2484 or tembrey@ thepilot.com.
More like this story