Growing up in the lush and rolling foothills just east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Darrell Westmoreland spent his youth hunting and fishing and helping out on his grandfather’s farm. So it was only natural that he took his love of the outdoors with him to college and majored in biological and agricultural engineering with an environmental concentration.
“I knew I wanted to do something environmental,” Darrell says. Farming would have been his first choice, but as difficult as it is to make money in agriculture, Darrell knew he’d have to find some other vocation. “A lot of farm boys move to heavy equipment to stay around the smell of fresh dirt,” he says.
After graduating from North Carolina State University, Darrell took a job with the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources’ Land Quality Division working on erosion control permitting and mine and dam safety. The job gave him his first exposure to the new and relatively unexplored field of natural channel stream restoration.
To restore these waterways, the contractor places sunken logs, rock abutments and native vegetation along a bank that has been carved out in a zig-zag pattern with excavators. The depth of the stream is varied to provide pools and structure for fish to rest in. The natural vegetation slows the water flow into the stream and prevents loose soil from clouding the water. The finished product is replete with bugs and birds, fish and wildlife and looks like it’s always been there, a vision of nature untouched.
But behind these postcard-perfect scenes is a lot of intensive engineering, hydrology and biology executed with highly finessed heavy equipment operations. Most of the sites Darrell works on start out as blighted wastelands – construction dumps or farm creek banks that have been destroyed by cattle. His customer base ranges from landowners who want their own private trout streams to state and local governments to other contractors looking for wetlands mitigation solutions or to fulfill Environmental Protection Agency requirements.
A leap of faith
To the enthusiastic outdoorsman this kind of work held a powerful appeal. But in the early 1990s, the science of natural stream restoration was still in its infancy. “I learned the basics in college but it was a pretty standard engineering degree,” Darrell says. “This is such a new industry that none of that was taught or available back then. Now you can major in it.”
Despite the lack of established protocols and standards, Darrell knew it was the kind of work he wanted to do. He also knew he’d never get deep into it working for the state, so he and his wife Stephanie talked it over and decided to start their own company – North State Environmental. Stephanie, who was then in college, changed her major from dietetics to business administration and became the president of the company to allow Darrell to focus on the time- and labor-intensive work in the field. “We just felt like it would be stronger if we went into it together,” Stephanie says. “We wanted to make it a family business and work together.”
Stephanie recalls their first job, done in 1994, as pretty humble – installing a silt fence using a borrowed machine. But the jobs and the company grew from there at a steady pace. At first Darrell rented all his equipment, served as the company’s only operator and contracted for the equipment’s transportation.
A little under two years later, Darrell hired Chip Johnson as an operator and right-hand man. “He’s still with me today as our estimator,” he says. From that point the company added two or three people a year. It then developed a riparian landscape division with a certified arborist to help guide its choice of landscaping materials. With steady work coming in, renting equipment didn’t make financial sense, so Darrell bought a Cat 322 excavator and a D5 track-type tractor and a truck and lowboy to haul them.
Darrell continues to favor the Cat excavators in and around the 20-metric-ton class and the D5 for his preliminary work to establish grades and contours. He also uses two Komatsu CD110 track trucks to haul dirt on his sites. As he gets closer to the final finish work he’ll bring in the skid steers, compact excavators and compact track loaders to place materials.
North State’s equipment maintenance regimen is rigorous and focused on preventive maintenance for good reason. A busted or leaky hydraulic hose would be a disaster in many of the environmentally sensitive sites where it works. Darrell recently hired his first full-time mechanic and outfitted him with a service truck to keep up with the equipment service chores.
And Darrell now uses a helicopter once or twice a month after developing an informal partnership with a pilot friend. He uses his friend’s services to survey and photograph jobsites and potential jobsites from the air. “When your jobs are deep in the woods or heavily forested areas, there really isn’t any other practical way to map out a site,” Darrell says.
Pioneering a new field
Today, going into their 12th year of business, North State Environmental has 34 employees and more than 20 major pieces of equipment. But getting to that point doing environmental work required Darrell to keep building on his knowledge of this emerging field of environmental construction. He found just what he was looking for with Dave Rosgen and the training/consulting firm Rosgen runs called Wildland Hydrology, based in Fort Collins, Colorado.
“Dave has five levels of courses, and I’ve taken all five,” Darrell says. “Two of the courses are two weeks in duration, so I have about seven weeks of classroom and field training with him.” The courses are designed for hydrologists, engineers, fisheries biologists, water resource planners and a wide range of specialists doing work and research in aquatic habitats, watersheds and ecosystems. At considerable expense Darrell has also sent some of his crew members to Rosgen’s seminars that were held in North Carolina. (For more on this see Rosgen’s website: www.wildlandhydrology.com.
The ultimate test of how well one of Darrell’s, or anybody’s, natural channel stream restorations has worked is done with a fishing pole. “I’ll go back a few days after the water has started to flow back in and I’ll hit a few spots with my rod and reel,” he says. “If I can catch fish, I know we’ve done a good job.”
A special kind of operator
One of the unique challenges to the kind of work North State Environmental does is finding operators who can finesse a 20-metric-ton excavator or a D5 dozer in an ecologically sensitive site. Not only do they have to be able to get in and out with minimal disruption to the site, but they also often have to work with the tracks deep in the middle of streams and use nothing more than a bucket and thumb to gingerly place rocks, logs and dirt. In the end, they create a landscape that looks like it’s been there for centuries.
“That’s the tough part,” Darrell says. “We hire by word of mouth and tell the guys safety comes first, followed by quality. We also want them to know we’re going to take care of the machines. A lot of operators just want to hog dirt and that’s their thing. But there are few guys out there who have the patience and skills. You’re working in tight situations and streams where you have to be sensitive to the environment. You’re not taking all the trees down like you would on a highway job or a big subdivision. You’re finessing. We’re going to keep the trees in place. That takes a different type of guy to work in confined environments.”
More often than not, says Darrell, the operators who succeed at this kind of work are, like him, outdoorsmen. “They like to hunt and fish and they understand what we’re doing, that we’re bettering the environment. They just sign on with it and really get into it. They see the benefits of our type of work.”
Building an urban oasis
One of North State Environmental’s top showcase projects is situated just blocks from Winston-Salem’s busy downtown and the campus of Winston-Salem State University. The site had been used for years as a construction landfill and was piled high with debris, spoils and broken concrete. Salem Creek, which ran through it, was polluted with urban runoff and slowly chewing away at its unstable banks – more of a ditch than a creek. It was a serious eyesore in the community.
North State hauled off the construction debris, excavated some 20,000 cubic yards of earth from the stream, and sloped and lined the banks with natural vegetation to filter the runoff. They then built cross vanes and rock vanes in the stream to interrupt the rush of water, put in a 900-foot mulch trail, a half-mile asphalt trail and capped it off with a pedestrian bridge that lets people walk over the creek into this urban oasis, one that includes more than five acres of restored wetlands and 17 acres of riparian forest and native meadow habitat. Joggers, walkers, birdwatchers and recreational enthusiasts of all stripes now frequent the site year around. A construction company couldn’t buy better publicity and public good will.
Making it right for the customer
In addition to finessing the machines, Darrell has built a loyal following among his customer base by making sure his customers are completely satisfied with every aspect of their dealings with North State Environmental. And to offer his customers a more complete package Darrell partnered with Grant Ginn of Wolfcreek Engineering, giving the two companies design-build capability.
“His employees are always professional,” says Randy Griffin, a supervisor with the North Carolina Department of Transportation. “The areas they work in are environmentally sensitive and we can’t have any fluid leaks or other types of damage. They always adhere to those rules. They do a great job in less than optimum conditions. It’s the kind of work that has a lot of details to it and not many people can do it. But they handle all the details well and the coordination between my office and his crews is great.”
Charles Anderson, a project coordinator with the Pilot View Resource Conservation & Development, concurs. Pilot View is a non-profit organization that helps develop projects with a focus on improving the environment and communities.
Anderson cites as an example a stream restoration project that North State had just finished when a massive flood came through. The vegetation had not put down roots sufficient to anchor the banks and as a result the new greenery and some of the structural work was washed away. Even though North State’s responsibility had ended, Darrell sent his crews back in to restore what was washed away at no charge. “He feels obligated to the project,” Anderson says. “He becomes part of your team and takes on that pride. He has a lot of specialists working for him so we don’t have to go to multiple contractors. It makes it a lot easier for us working with folks who have this kind of training. Darrell says it all when he says ‘We’re here to serve you and make you happy with the project.'”
Pilot View and North State have collaborated on some 30 different projects. Additionally the organization has hosted some of Dave Rosgen’s seminars. For more information on the work they do go to this site.
And the quality of the company’s work is bringing North State Environmental a measure of national attention. Jobs and/or bids are underway in Tennessee, Georgia and Virginia. Later this year Darrell will head across the border to Vancouver, British Columbia, to size up a slope at the edge of a housing development site that is starting to wash into a river. “The guy in charge of the project wanted somebody who is experienced. He wants it done right,” Darrell says. Because they have to protect fisheries downstream, the owners want the contractor to use vegetation and natural channel design techniques to get the water turned and stabilize the banks.
Doing what you love with those you love
As president, Stephanie handles all the contracts and oversees managerial operations, including estimating, accounts payable/accounts receivable and human resources. Despite this considerable list of duties, working together in their own company gives the couple time during the day to see each other and some flexibility in raising their family. (The couple has two sons, ages 6 and 3.)
What has surprised Stephanie was how the company managed to grow from a husband-and-wife start-up to its current size. “We just keep working and setting goals for ourselves and moving forward,” she says.
At this point in the company’s life Darrell sees no reason why it can’t grow bigger, and he’s actively pursuing growth as a goal. But he also keeps his original goals, the same ones he had as a kid, in mind.
“I grew up playing in the creek and I just wanted to have a job where I could do the right thing,” he says. “I’m doing something good for the environment. I get to play on heavy equipment. It’s a lot of fun.”
For more information about the work done by North State Environmental visit website.