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Similar to other states and regions, North Carolina is currently facing a number of environmental and societal challenges. Within the past few years alone, our state has been confronted with a series of significant environmental challenges that have impacted our environmental quality and natural resources as well as our economy and livelihoods. For instance, North Carolina faced devastating consequences of Hurricanes Matthew (2016) and Florence (2018) resulting in massive flooding and damage, particularly in coastal areas (Aly et al 2021). The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimated that the damage from Hurricane Florence alone amounted to $24 billion (NOAA 2021). North Carolina also continues to deal with the impacts of industrial chemical contamination of our natural water bodies, such as the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the Cape Fear River Basin (NCDHHS 2022b). PFAS exposures in North Carolina are estimated to be the third highest in the nation (Scruggs 2021), and significant research efforts are now focused on understanding the range of health and environmental impacts of PFAS exposures across the state.

North Carolina also continues to struggle with nutrient run-off, largely from agricultural practices, resulting in eutrophication of our surface waters, as well as managing large amounts of manure wastes from animal production facilities. Other challenges include managing solid waste and responding to the collapse of plastics recycling in recent years (NCDEQ 2019), protecting rural and agricultural land while balancing increased rates of urbanization and population growth (NCSU 2021), and managing coal ash and coal ash spills (EPA 2014). We have also faced a number of societal challenges in recent years, including the management of the COVID-19 pandemic (NCDHHS 2022a) and the proliferation of misinformation on a range of scientific issues (News & Observer 2021; NCSBE).

Whether our state is dealing with new or legacy issues, researchers, scholars, extension agents, government officials, and others interested in responding to critical issues benefit from engaging and involving stakeholders and community members. By engaging a range of stakeholders and local community members, a more comprehensive view of pressing issues can be characterized (particularly by those with first-hand knowledge or experiences), more suitable solutions can be identified and potentially implemented, and communication strategies and campaigns can be tailored towards the impacted populations to best meet their needs and preferences. Further, the engagement of stakeholders and community members to develop solutions to manage environmental and societal issues can also help ensure that these solutions are just, fair, equitable, and respond to diverse needs and perspectives. Finally, stakeholder and community engagement may be particularly useful for dealing with issues that have higher degrees of uncertainty, complexities, and may potentially affect a wider range of stakeholder groups (IRGC 2020).

This publication outlines the key steps to engage stakeholders and community members to identify and address potential environmental and societal issues (see Figure 1). As shown in Figure 1, the steps to stakeholder engagement are (1) define goals for engaging stakeholders, (2) identify and select stakeholders, (3) select engagement activity, (4) conduct engagement, and (5) compile results, reflect, and revise.

Benefits of Engaging Stakeholders

  • Local knowledge is identified and integrated into solutions
  • More comprehensive understanding is obtained by leveraging local knowledge and perspectives
  • Most suitable solutions are identified to address issue(s)
  • Best and/or most appropriate communication strategies are identified and established
  • More just, fair, and equitable solutions are created
  • Local stakeholder and community needs and perspectives are addressed

This publication may be particularly helpful for Extension agents, government officials, researchers, advisory boards, bureaus, and others who wish to engage stakeholders in strategies to deal with local and state issues as they pertain to environmental or societal challenges. Overall, this publication aims to discuss the following questions:

  • What is a stakeholder?
  • What are the goals of engaging stakeholders?
  • Which stakeholders should be included?
  • What processes or activities can be used to engage stakeholders?
  • When should stakeholders be engaged?

A step-by-step guide and a list of additional resources and information on stakeholder engagement are included at the end of this publication.

Flowchart for stakeholder engagement process.

Figure 1. Overview of Stakeholder Engagement Processes

What Is a Stakeholder? Definitions and Key Concepts

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First, it is important to clearly define what is meant by a stakeholder. Stakeholders are defined here as individuals or groups of individuals who can affect or be affected by an event, activity, process, or decision (Reed et al. 2009, Colvin et al 2016, IRGC 2020). Stakeholders can be distinguished from community members or the public in that their stake is often professional and as such, they may have decision-making abilities, although not for every issue at hand. Stakeholders are often groups of people who share a common interest, or a stake, in an issue, and can be represented by an individual who speaks for the larger group. Common stakeholder groups include representatives from industry, government (at federal, state, and local levels), scientists and researchers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), advocacy groups, trade unions, and Indigenous communities. Members of the public are also a key stakeholder group to consider engaging when responding to critical environmental and societal issues at state and local levels.

In addition to stakeholders, there are also community members who are individuals that reside in a given community whose values and priorities need to be considered when making decisions regarding an event or activity (Kliskey et al. 2021). Community members do not typically have decision-making abilities, although their perspectives should be taken into account to ensure a fair, equitable, and just decision-making process that is representative of diverse perspectives. Community members may include residents, citizens, members of faith-based organizations, health professionals, and/or local educators.

What Are the Goals of Engaging Stakeholders?

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One of the most important steps in working with stakeholders is to identify and clarify the goals of engagement and reflect upon the expected outcomes. These identified goals and expected outcomes should be defined clearly up front, before reaching out to stakeholders and holding any activities. Depending on the goal of the researcher, extension agent, manager, decision-maker, and/or organizer, there may be different types and levels of engagement. Three common forms of engagement include (1) communication, (2) consultation, and (3) co-creation or deliberation (Rowe and Frewer 2005). These forms of engagement are described in greater detail in Table 1.

Table 1. Common forms of stakeholder engagement, associated goals, and example activities (from Rowe and Frewer 2005).

Form of Engagement Goal of Engagement Example Activities
Communication Improve knowledge or awareness of an issue
  • Posters at public science fairs and other public events
  • Science museum exhibits
  • Community outreach activities
Consultation Collect input from regarding views, attitudes, perceptions, concerns, suggestions
  • Stakeholder surveys
  • Focus groups
  • Interviews
Co-creation or deliberation Collaborate and/or co-create knowledge or solutions
  • Products, processes, and/or solutions developed through stakeholder input

Which Stakeholders Should Be Included?

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In general, individuals and groups who have a stake in a decision, action, process, or event should be included in engagement. However, the process of defining who has a stake requires thoughtful reflection and consideration, and it will often vary depending on the context and goals of engagement. Relatively simple issues can involve a fewer number of stakeholders, while issues that are more complex, of greater impact, or that involve greater uncertainty should involve a broader range of stakeholders (IRGC 2020).

In their efforts to identify and select the stakeholders to be included in engagement, decision-makers should resist the temptation to contact the “usual suspects” through ad hoc approaches using existing networks and contacts. Among other limitations, this ad-hoc selection of stakeholders can further marginalize excluded groups, bias results in favor of existing interests, and even jeopardize the long-term viability and support of the engagement process and resulting outcomes if outcomes are deemed invalid by excluded groups (Reed et al. 2009).

To avoid the limitations of the ad hoc approach to selecting stakeholder participants, there are other approaches that can be used that are more intentional. Common techniques to identify participants include selection based on their geographical context (for example, proximity to a location or site), stakeholder interests (for instance, affiliation with industry, NGO), and degree of stakeholder influence (for example, ability to directly affect decisions) (Colvin et al. 2016). These participants can be identified and selected based on a review of publicly available information, the peer-reviewed literature, oral or written records of events, suggestions given by experts or other stakeholders, or processes of self-selection (where participants sign-up for activities from announcements or advertisements) (Reed et al. 2009).

Stakeholder Identification and Selection

  • Include stakeholders who “have a stake”
  • Adequate representation of diverse sectors
  • Adequate representation of perspectives, viewpoints, needs
  • Valuable knowledge, insights, and/or experiences
  • Ability and willingness to participate
  • Selection through a variety of methods, such as location, interests, influence, self-identification or identification by other stakeholders

In addition, when selecting stakeholders, it is important to consider adequate representation of diverse sectors as well as perspectives, needs, and viewpoints. It is also important to consider how each groups’ and/or individuals’ knowledge, insights, and/or experiences relate to the given context. Further, stakeholders’ ability and willingness to participate in engagement must also be considered. Different incentives may be used to attract stakeholder participants, including financial incentives (for instance, honoraria, gift cards) or other tangible rewards and benefits.

After a list of potential stakeholders are identified, it may be useful to characterize the stakeholders according to their ability to affect as well as be affected by an action or decision (Reed et al. 2009). This will help categorize and describe different types of stakeholders, which may be useful when utilizing the outcomes of engagement into subsequent recommendations, actions, or decision-making.

What Processes or Activities Can Be Used to Engage Stakeholders?

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When done well, stakeholder engagement can improve decision-making and serve as an important way for decision-makers to connect with the local community or with those who are most interested in decisions that directly affect them. Choosing the best or most appropriate activity will inherently depend on the goals of engagement as well as the degree to which people from various socio-economic, cultural, or political circumstances can influence the engagement process. Using the right activity type is key for ensuring that engagement goals are achieved and the decision maker reaches the stakeholders they intend.

Communication-Based Activities

Frequently used communication-based engagement activities related to scientific issues include booths at science fairs, science days at museums, and various extension and outreach events. Scientists, researchers, science-communicators, community outreach members, and extension programs often focus their outreach and engagement activities towards communication-based forms of engagement to better inform the public or community members of various issues. For example, scientists and educators may display a poster at a public event (see Figure 2) to discuss the impacts of climate change and provide a list of items individual citizens can do to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in their own homes.

A field day event can also be an excellent way to engage stakeholders by sharing new information, research outcomes, and best practices at a site convenient for the stakeholder community. NC State Extension programs are well versed in developing, hosting, and conducting field day events. For example, field day events are held in October each year to connect with NC’s sweetpotato community (see Figure 3). Such field day events are ideal for engaging a range of stakeholders at local levels and who are interested in a particular topic.

When preparing materials for communication-based engagement, it is often important to include (1) background information on a given issue or concern, (2) approaches to investigate the issue or concern, (3) results or deeper investigations of the issue, and (4) conclusions and next steps. The use of visually appealing figures and photos in addition to text is important when developing written communication-based materials. Any figures or photos used should be clear and of high resolution for best viewing. Text should also be clear, concise, in an appropriate font size and type, and free from unnecessary technical jargon that may not be well understood by a range of audiences. Leaflets or handouts can also be developed to support the main visual materials (for instance, posters). Additional resources or links to further information can also be provided for attendees to follow-up on a given topic if they are interested. Working with or involving science communicators in the development of communication materials for engagement or outreach may be help ensure the materials are produced and displayed most effectively.

Consultation-Based Activities

Surveys, interviews, and focus groups provide opportunities to engage various stakeholders to understand their views, attitudes, perceptions, potential concerns, or suggestions relevant for a given topic. Results from such consultation-based activities may be helpful for subsequent decision-making purposes. For example, a local government may be interested in how their citizens feel about developing a new composting facility to reduce the amount of organic waste sent to their municipal landfill. In this case, the local government may wish to develop a survey to understand citizens’ attitudes towards composting, views of developing a new facility within town limits, or potential concerns regarding developing a new facility. Results from such surveys may then be used to inform decisions regarding whether to proceed with developing a new facility, and if so, how it should be developed to create the most value for the community.

To prepare and disseminate written surveys, online survey tools (such as Qualtrics) or paper survey forms may be used. Survey questions can include a range of question types including multiple choice or open comment fields. Survey questions should be written clearly and concisely, and they should not use any terms that are unfamiliar to the general population (unless they are specified in the survey). Surveys should also be developed in a way that is most appropriate for the study and its objectives (for instance, ensure that survey questions are written clearly and can produce intended results from participant responses). Surveys can be prepared so that they are anonymous and collect no identifying information from the survey respondents. This may be particularly important for obtaining information on respondents’ views, attitudes, potential concerns, or recommendations regarding sensitive or controversial topics in which respondents may not feel comfortable providing their name or contact information. Surveys can also be prepared in a way that collects demographic information from respondents, which may be important when analyzing the results according to certain demographics (for instance, age, gender, level of education, or zip code).

Involving social scientists or communication specialists during the survey development phase may be helpful to ensure that the survey format, length, question type, and question wording are most effective for the goals of the survey. In some cases, internal review board (IRB) approval may be needed prior to reaching out to stakeholder participants and before disseminating the surveys. NC State faculty, staff, students, and extension agents can reach out to NC State’s IRB office for questions about the IRB approval process. For an example of an online survey that was developed and disseminated to evaluate the views of NC State Extension agents regarding their views, needs, and perceptions related to environmental health and risk issues in the state of North Carolina, see Grieger and Cummings (2022) and Figure 4. For more information about NC State’s IRB process and contact information, see the IRB section of the Research Administration and Compliance website.

Interviews and focus groups are more time- and resource-intensive than surveys, though they allow for more in-depth insights and a deeper understanding of stakeholder views. Interviews may include structured or semi-structured conversations on particular topics or themes with interview participants. In this process, the interviewer prepares an interview protocol that includes (1) the purpose of the interview, (2) list of interview questions, (3) details regarding the structure and content of the interview (for example, location, timing, and format), (4) details of how the interview participants will be identified and recruited, and (5) aspects of how the interview results will be handled and stored. Interview questions are often sent to or shared with the interviewee prior to the interview. The interview can be conducted in-person or remotely via web or phone, and it may be recorded upon consent from the interview participant. Study participants may be provided an honorarium or some form of compensation for their time engaged in the interview process.

Focus groups are essentially group interviews, in which participants collectively respond to questions and discuss with each other as a part of the focus group process. Focus groups can be used to understand perceptions or views of more complex or controversial topics (for example, climate change, genetically modified foods) for which a dialogue or group discussion may be particularly helpful. In these cases, the focus group participants can respond to each other’s points and ask additional questions or provide further information. Sometimes, focus group participants even change their initial responses and views based on the group’s discussion. Similar to conducting interviews, the organizer prepares the focus group protocol with details of the (1) goals of the focus group, (2) list of discussion questions, (3) details of the focus group structure and content (for instance, location, timing, or format), (4) details of how focus group participants will be identified and recruited, and (5) aspects of how the results will be handled and stored. Focus group participants may also be provided some form of compensation, such as an honorarium, for their time participating in the study.

To conduct interviews or focus groups, IRB approval is often needed from the principal investigator’s institution (such as NC State University) prior to reaching out to study participants. Similar to developing surveys, it may be helpful to collaborate with or involve a social scientist or communication expert when developing interviews or focus groups to follow best practices for engaging stakeholders to elicit their feedback and perspectives on particular topics.

For conducting surveys, interviews, and focus groups, it is also important to be clear on the target audience, how they will be identified and recruited to participate in the study(ies). In some cases, additional efforts may be needed to ensure that the target audience is successfully recruited in the consultation-based activity(ies). Further, it is also important to reflect upon the total number and breadth of study participants when evaluating and analyzing the results of the study to ensure that the conclusions drawn are appropriate for the sample size obtained.

Deliberation-Based Activities

If the goal of engaging stakeholders is to co-create knowledge or co-develop solutions, then engagement should be based on deliberative, participatory methods (Kliskey et al. 2021). For example, collaborative working groups can be developed to share ideas or formulate strategic action plans that are unique to a given case study or context. For example, local governments can work together with diverse stakeholders and community members to develop plans to improve sustainability on a local scale, such as creating more open spaces for recreation or respond to citizens’ concerns about sustainability. Deliberation-based methods can be very time- and resource-consuming forms of engagement, although they can produce more meaningful results and better outcomes than other approaches.

As an example, local government officials may develop working groups that are tasked with developing surveys to gauge perceptions of environmental issues according to various citizen groups, or to develop city plans to reduce their carbon footprint across various private and public sectors. Other examples include development of public signs to raise awareness of various environmental issues at local levels (see Figure 5).

In developing collaborative working groups, the first step is to reiterate and clarify the goals and expected outcomes of the collaborative group. This will help identify the actions and strategies needed to achieve the goals and outcomes. Next, potential stakeholders are identified and recruited for participation in the working groups. The working group should then collectively develop an approach or strategy to achieve the goals and expected outcomes of the group. These approaches or strategies often need to be tailored towards the specific context at hand and the stakeholder participants involved in the working groups. Each working group will develop their approach to communicate, collaborate, and make progress towards reaching the goals and expected outcomes. The working group may also wish to identify a leader as well as identify other roles and responsibilities for other group members to ensure adequate progress is made.

A wall displaying a passage about climate change on it.

Figure 2. A climate change exhibit in a museum.

Eilperin, J., and Dennis, B. 2017. “At EPA museum, history might be in for a change.” The Denver Post, August 1, 2017.

Participants standing in front of an informational table at a field day event.

Figure 3. NC State faculty and students attending the 2021 Sweetpotato field day event, held at the Horticultural Research Station in Clinton, NC. Poster presentations and outreach materials are used to inform sweetpotato growers and other stakeholders about new research findings to improve NC’s sweetpotato industry.

A mobile phone with a mobile-friendly Qualtrics survey on the display.

Figure 4. Example of Qualtrics survey to investigate participant views of environmental health and risk priorities (mobile format view).

Extension specialist, Khara Grieger, stakeholders, and community members pose with outdoor signs about natural water systems.

Figure 5. Extension specialist Khara Grieger (second to right) collaborates with local stakeholders and community members to develop outdoor signs that explain the importance of natural water systems.

When Should Stakeholders Be Engaged?

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The decision of when to engage stakeholders is also an important consideration in the engagement process. Engaging stakeholders within early stages of a decision process is beneficial to understanding broader stakeholder perspectives, needs, and any concerns early on. Understanding these insights at early stages may help inform the subsequent steps of the engagement or decision-making processes. However, if the engagement occurs too early, it may be difficult to have concrete and constructive conversations due to the lack of substantive details and therefore may not produce meaningful results. For instance, if a city would like to develop a downtown park for recreational purposes, engaging stakeholders in conversations about what the park looks like, what is would be used for, potential benefits, and limitations of the park’s development would work best if town officials had some preliminary information that they can share with interested parties or stakeholders.

At the same time, engagement should not take place too late in the process, such as after key decisions have been made, since stakeholder input may not feel as meaningful or important at this stage. Using the previous example of the city park, if city officials had already created a full and finalized plan of the downtown park, then it could appear less likely that more substantive views or input from stakeholders would be incorporated into the park’s planning process.

Finding the right time to engage stakeholders so that there is meaningful engagement or dialogue while also not being too late in the decision-making or planning processes is essential. It should be noted that various socio-economic, cultural, and political circumstances may also be important to consider when planning the engagement processes. Among other considerations, the timing and location of public hearings or meetings should be appropriate and convenient for the target stakeholder groups. A session targeted to working professionals, for instance, might need to be held in the evening, while a session for new parents might need to be held during the day while children are in school or childcare. Care should also be taken to not overburden stakeholders with demands and expectations of the engagement process, as this may lead to engagement fatigue.

After stakeholders are engaged, results should be collected and compiled in a timely manner. Identifying the best ways for ensuring these results meaningfully influence substantive decisions remains an ongoing challenge for stakeholder engagement. In addition, the stakeholder engagement activity should be reviewed and reflected upon to capture any ‘lessons learned’ from the experience and opportunities for improvement in future engagement activities.

How Can I Learn More about Stakeholder Engagement?

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To learn more about stakeholder engagement, the following references may be particularly helpful and informative. Additional references are included in the subsequent section.

In addition, more information about NC State’s IRB process can be found on the Human Subjects (IRB) section of the Research Administration and Compliance website.

Summary of Steps to Engage Stakeholders

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1. Define and clarify goals of engaging stakeholders. Common goals of stakeholder engagement include: (1) sharing information and raising awareness of various issues through communication-based activities, (2) understanding stakeholders’ views, attitudes, perceptions, and concerns through consultation-based activities, and (3) collaborating or co-creating knowledge or solutions through deliberation-based engagement.

2. Identify and select stakeholders for engagement. Identify individuals or groups who have a stake in a decision, action, process, or event. Ensure adequate representation of diverse sectors, perspectives, viewpoints, needs, and interests.

3. Select the most appropriate activity to engage stakeholders. Stakeholder engagement activities should depend on the goals of engagement and people from various socio-economic, cultural, and/or political circumstances. Commonly used engagement activities include exhibits, posters, displays for communication based goals; surveys, interviews, and focus groups for consultation-based goals; and collaborative working groups for deliberation-based goals of engagement. When developing stakeholder engagement activities, it might be helpful to work with or involve social scientists and/or science communicators to help ensure the activities follow best practices and produce the expected outcomes. In some instances, IRB approval may need to be obtained prior to reaching out to and engaging stakeholders.

4. Conduct stakeholder engagement. The stakeholder engagement activities should be conducted at the most appropriate time to ensure there is meaningful engagement or dialogue while also not being too late in decision-making or planning processes. The timing and location of engagement should also be appropriate and convenient for the target stakeholder groups. In many instances, incentives may need to be provided for stakeholders to participate in engagement activities, including the use of financial honoraria or other means to encourage participation.

5. Compile results, reflect, and revise (if needed). After stakeholders are engaged, results should be collected and compiled, and any lessons learned from the experience should be identified and reflected upon. Future engagement activities may be revised in subsequent steps. If needed, consult additional resources and references for further information on engaging stakeholders.


Skip to References

Aly, N.A., Casillas, G., Luo, Y-S., McDonald, T.J., Wade, T.L., Zhu, R., Newman, G., Lloyd, D., Wright, F.A., Chiu, W.A., and Rusyn, I. 2021. “Environmental impacts of Hurricane Florence flooding in eastern North Carolina: temporal analysis of contaminant distribution and potential human health risks.” Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology 31: 810-822.

Colvin, R.M., Witt, G.B., Lacey, J. 2016. “Approaches to Identifying Stakeholders in Environmental Management: Insights from Practitioners to Go Beyond ‘the Usual Suspects.’” Land Use Policy 52: 266-276.

Eanes, Z. 2021. “UNC's Ralph Baric was a Subject of COVID Conspiracy Theories.” The News & Observer, December 27, 2021.

Eilperin, J., and Dennis, B. 2017. “At EPA Museum, History Might Be In for a Change.” The Denver Post, August 1, 2017.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Case Summary: Duke Energy Agrees to $3 Million Cleanup for Coal Ash Release in the Dan River.” The Environmental Protection Agency. Press release dated May 22, 2014.

Grieger, K., Cummings, C.L. 2022. “Informing Environmental Health and Risk Priorities through Local Outreach and Extension.” Environment Systems and Decisions (2022).

International Risk Governance Center. 2020. “Involving Stakeholders in the Risk Governance Process.” Lausanne: EPFL International Risk Governance Center.

Kliskey, A., Williams, P., Griffith, D.L., Dale, V.H., Schelly, C., Marshall, A-M., Gagnon, V.S., Eaton, W.M., and Floress, K. 2021. “Thinking Big and Thinking Small: A Conceptual Framework for Best Practices in Community and Stakeholder Engagement in Food, Energy, and Water Systems.” Sustainability 13 (4): 2160.

North Carolina State Board of Elections (NCSBE). 2022. "Combating Misinformation." About Elections. Accessed in 2022.

North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ). 2019. “Recycling Disruptions.” Market Disruptions.

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS). 2022a. “North Carolina COVID-19 Information.” North Carolina Covid-19 Response.

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS). 2022b. “Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances.” Division of Public Health, Epidemiology: Occupational and Environmental. Last modified January 6, 2022.

Reed, M.S., Graves, A., Dandy, N., Posthumus, H., Hubacek, K., Morris, J., Prell, C., Quinn, C.H., and Stringer, L.C. 2009. “Who’s in and Why? A Typology of Stakeholder Analysis Methods for Natural Resource Management.” Journal of Environmental Management 90 (5): 1933-1949.

Rowe, G., and Frewer, L.J. 2005. “A Typology of Public Engagement Mechanisms.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 30 (2): 251-290.

Scruggs, S. 2019. “PFAS — A Problem in North Carolina Drinking Water.” Environmental Factor, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, March 2019.

Shore, D. 2021. “Farmland Challenges in a Fast-Growing State.” NC State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) News, March 16, 2021.

Smith, A., Enloe, J., Lott N., and Ross, T. 2021. “U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather & Climate Disasters 1980–2021.” NOA National Centers for Environmental Information.


Assistant Professor & Extension Specialist in Environmental Health & Risk Assess
Applied Ecology
Interdisciplinary Research & Engagement Specialist
Applied Ecology
Applied Ecology

Publication date: July 5, 2022

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