Park’s canoes help re-introduce community to Mayo River

The Town of Mayodan is named for the Mayo and Dan Rivers, but even for residents, the Mayo River must sometimes seem a mysterious presence. It flashes briefly through the dense woods at highway overpasses, and must be sought out with some effort, like a friendly-but-shy uncle at family reunions.

The Mayo River offers enough fast water to make a trip interesting.

The Mayo River offers enough fast water to make even a short paddling trip interesting.

So the staff at Mayo River State Park is making a determined effort to re-introduce people to the namesake river in western Rockingham County and reveal its obvious potential as an outdoor destination by staging canoe trips on the waterway.

It’s not easy. The state park has 2,187 acres spread among 12 tracts from the Virginia-North Carolina border south to Mayodan, but as yet, there are no suitable, dedicated paddling access points on park property, said Superintendent Keith Martin. Though he’s confident that land for good access will eventually be secured, for the time being, Martin and his employees face complicated logistics for the one-hour and five-hour canoe trips they offer. Those depend on the good will of landowners that allow the park to use riverfront property in limited ways and the towns of Mayodan and Madison (which maintains the only formal paddling access on the river).

Access to the Mayo River requires careful logistics/

Access to the Mayo River requires careful logistics.

Pickups and drop-offs for the trips demand some coordinated effort of the small staff and even park visitors. For example, the final stretch involves paddling upriver on the Dan a short ways to reach the Madison takeout point. That can be a bit of a struggle for inexperienced paddlers, so Martin has devised an “emergency” takeout on private land for those who need it.

But it’s all worth it. For much of the warm months, the Mayodan is a low-flow river offering shallow, fast-water stretches that excite the newbie paddler, heavy shade with cooling breezes and a sense of absolute solitude in the heart of the community. For long stretches, there are no buildings, houses or backyards facing the river. Its water is clear and clean and one of the reasons the Mayo was handpicked as a potential state park site.

“It takes about as long to get ready for these trips as it does to float them,” Martin said. “But, it’s important to get people onto the river in some fashion. That’s what the state park is all about.”

Mayo River State Park was authorized by the legislature in 2003 at the request of the state parks system and opened its first interim facilities in 2010 at the site of the Old Mayo Park – a beloved former community recreation site created in 1948 by Washington Mills, Mayodan’s principal employer decades ago. The site’s small lakes have become a venue for a popular family fishing day each year.

Martin guesses he has introduced about 50 people to the river using the canoe trips, and most have been local residents, some of whom may have never splashed in its waters before. Outdoor outfitters are eager to get more recreational paddlers from Triad population centers only an hour’s drive away.

Information about the paddling trips and other programs at Mayo River State Park can be found here.

Learning how to improve rare mountain bogs

Mountain bogs are among the most rare and most fragile ecosystems anywhere in the U.S. Though they are home to some very rare species, such as Gray’s lily and the mountain bog turtle, not very much is known about exactly how these small, high-elevation wetlands work.

Pineola bog produces variety of plants after careful thinning process.

Pineola bog produces a variety of plants in early spring after careful thinning process.

So, naturalists with the state parks system are taking a very methodical approach to managing the bogs – and getting impressive early results.

The parks system has three bogs in western North Carolina that are designated state natural areas – Pineola Bog, Beech Creek Bog and Sugar Mountain Bog – and so joined the Bog Learning Network, a collaboration of scientists from state and federal agencies and private conservation groups that manage bogs. The group adopted a “no regrets” philosophy to take some cautious action to improve the habitats.

“Basically, it’s an ecological version of ‘do no harm,’” said western region biologist Marshall Ellis. “You take some judicious management actions and then wait to see if they work. If so, you move ahead. If not, then you reconsider. Mostly, you just make sue that whatever you’re doing is something that the ecosystem is resilient enough to withstand.”

"Before" photo shows woody alders shutting out most other plants,

“Before” photo shows woody alders shutting out most other plants.

At Pineola Bog, that meant removing much of the alder, a woody plant that seemed to be shading out some of the more fragile plants. It was simple but pretty laborious work by biologists and the staff from Elk Knob State Park in Watauga County, the unit responsible for routine management of the area. They chose a portion of the 91-acre bog that had already been altered somewhat by a long-gone gravel mining operation. As spring crept into the mountains, the difference was startling. More varied plant life sprang from the spongy soil, including an abundance of fringed phacelia blossoms that had not been seen before. Ellis said the next step is to expand the alder thinning effort into other management zones.

For these dogs, turtle hunt is a shell game

turtledogs1At the command, “Findturtlefindturtlefindturtle,” Jenny Ren and Mink thrashed through the underbrush at Eno River State Park Saturday with singular determination and an unbounded joy in the chase.

In just a bit over 30 minutes, Mink returned, carefully carrying a box turtle in his jaws and obviously pleased with himself. He dropped it at the feet of John Rucker, rewarded only with impressed comments from about a dozen park visitors who witnessed the demonstration.

Rucker and Boykin spaniels search for turtles in heavy brush,

Rucker and Boykin spaniels search for turtles in heavy brush,

The two Boykin spaniels are from a pack of 10 that Rucker has trained to find box turtles. Rucker brought the good-natured dogs from his Greensboro home to a reptile and amphibian program at the park and they were the stars of the event.

Bird hunting with one of the spaniels years ago, Rucker discovered that they have a natural talent for finding the reclusive turtles and could be easily trained using scented, fiberglass turtle shells. Some have theorized that the “scent trail” left by a traveling turtle somewhat resembles the scent of game birds. At any rate, the dogs consider a turtle hunt just great sport.

For biologists, it’s more than sport. Populations of the eastern box turtle are declining everywhere and no one is sure why, although loss of habitat likely figures into it. In many eastern and midwestern states, including North Carolina, box turtle studies have begun in earnest. Outdoor lovers have been invited to get involved in “citizen science” projects by reporting box turtle encounters. At Eno River, a box turtle study was launched by the Eno River Association. On Saturday, naturalist Kat Walston was on hand to measure, weigh and mark the turtles found by the spaniels as part of that effort.

Naturalist Kat Walston gets help measuring box turtle for study sponsored by the Eno River Association

Naturalist Kat Walston gets help measuring box turtle for a study sponsored by the Eno River Association.

Rucker has carried his dogs as far afield as Wisconsin, where a similar decline in ornate box turtles has researchers worried. In Illinois, the dogs have tracked turtles that are battling a mysterious virus, and in Tennessee, they’ve helped study how well box turtles can survive heavy logging operations. A keen observer can learn much from the success – or failure – of a turtle hunt, Rucker told the park visitors. “You have to learn how turtles behave in order to learn how to protect them.”

Information about North Carolina’s citizen science effort to track box turtle populations can be found here.

AmeriCorps member prods landowners to help protect New River

(Submitted by Abby Van de Bogert, AmeriCorps program director in the N.C. Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs.)

Darius Pollard, is one of several AmeriCorps members serving at North Carolina state parks this summer and clearly embodies the organization’s pledge to “get things done.”

Cleared riverbank is scenic, but natural areas with heavy vegetation to more to protect water quality

Cleared riverbank is scenic, but natural areas with heavy vegetation do more to protect water quality.

As Pollard began his term of service at New River State Park, he saw an opportunity to educate the public in a way that would benefit the park and the river. The park regularly monitors riparian conservation easements along the waterway’s south fork, designated a national Wild and Scenic River. These easements often serve as riparian buffers – riverbank property protected from development, which helps maintain water quality.

As the park monitored these areas, they found some properties had been clear-cut and mowed, reducing the buffers’ ability to protect the river. Unfortunately, the park had no resources to reach out and educate the landowners or to assist in restoring the riparian buffers.

Pollard developed a campaign to reach out to these landowners, writing letters to those whose easements were in need of restoration, describing the benefits of natural riparian buffer zones and the environmental consequences of clearing those areas. “The biggest surprise was the feedback I received from sending the letters,” he said. “I got seven calls within the first week and a half, and everyone wanted to learn more.”

AmeriCorps member Darius Pollard

AmeriCorps member Darius Pollard

Through a partnership with the nonprofit National Committee for the New River, Pollard arranged for funding to share the cost of restoration with the landowners. Pollard now meets regularly with the organization’s restoration director, Lynn Caldwell, to review property conditions and to help create land management plans and cost estimates for landowners interested in restoring their riparian buffers.

Since sending the letters in early May, Pollard has already had four landowners begin the voluntary restoration. More property restorations are in the design and approval process. “I halfway expected landowners to be upset that I was trying to tell them what do with their own property,” Pollard said, “And in a way, I wouldn’t blame them. In this case, however, everyone is downstream. “

Friends group grants turn into creative state park projects

In coming months, state parks will be dreaming up some creative ways to use grants being made available by the statewide Friends of State Parks (FSP). A combination of additional funding for the grant program and tighter budgets for the state parks system have made the FSP grants more valuable than ever.

An FSP grant helps stage a paddle festival at Hammocks Beach.

An FSP grant helps stage a popular paddle festival at Hammocks Beach State Park.

Modest, one-time grants from the FSP program improve the North Carolina state parks experience in some surprising ways. An FSP grant augmented by funds from the Eno River Association allowed Eno River State Park to add a lifelike display of a coyote, an animal increasingly common in that area. FSP funds will match those raised by Friends of Crowders Mountain State Park to support the annual festival at that “Park of the Year.” Hammocks Beach State Park’s paddle festival, partially funded by an FSP grant, will offer visitors the opportunity to get out on the water in what is becoming an international event supported by the American Canoe Association and involving the British Canoe Union.

A coyote mount was added at Eno River State Park with FSP grant help.

A coyote mount was added at Eno River State Park with FSP grant help.

Morrow Mountain State Park will rebuild a dry-stacked stone wall that once served proudly at the entrance. Native argillite, once quarried in the park, was used by the Civilian Conservation Corps to fashion the wall in 1940. The result will be more than just wall construction; it will be building an organization of volunteers as Friends of Morrow Mountain contribute both funding and physical effort in the restoration.

With three quarters of 2014 remaining, the Friends of State Parks Grants Disbursement Committee is inviting ideas from park staffs, and said it expects to have opportunity support more projects.

National Trails Day in NC meant new, innovative trails

Lake James State Park opened 15 miles of mountain biking trails.

Lake James opened 15 miles of mountain biking trails.

National Trails Day Saturday in North Carolina’s state parks was seasoned by the introduction of several new and innovative trails.

At Lake James State Park, more than 50 mountain bikers came to inaugurate 15 miles of newly built biking trails at the park’s Paddy’s Creek Access. Seconds after a ribbon was cut at 9 a.m., bikers streamed onto a four-mile, beginner-loop trail and an 11-mile intermediate loop built by a contractor with help from park staff (which built three of the trail’s four bridges) and volunteers, many from the Northwest North Carolina Mountain Bike Alliance. The project, including a new parking area, represents an investment of $210,000 from the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund. The trails, which are also open to hikers in good weather, will help make the Paddy’s Creek Area of Lake James a year-round destination, complementing an extensive swim beach, bathhouse and picnic grounds opened in 2010.

Kids helped dedicated a new TRACK Trail at Grandfather Mountain State Park.

Kids helped dedicated a new TRACK Trail at Grandfather Mountain State Park.

A new TRACK Trail designed to get kids outdoors was dedicated at Grandfather Mountain State Park on the eve of Trails Day. The one-mile section of the Profile Trail was turned into a self-guided, kid-friendly trail designed for exploration. Pilot Mountain and William B. Umstead state parks celebrated new trail segments that help connect those parks with other trail assets in their communities. A “volksmarch” along a new section of Raleigh Greenway opened the connection between the city’s Prairie Ridge Ecostation and Umstead. The Friends of Sauratown Mountain were largely responsible for a newly relocated and rehabbed trail along Horne Creek and the Yadkin River at Pilot Mountain State Park. This is part of a larger trail network envisioned for the Sauratown Mountain region.

In all, the state parks system held more than two dozen events for the day. Volunteers appeared at a number of parks to improve existing trails and build new ones, including Elk Knob, Crowders Mountain and Lake Norman. And, Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail held workdays at several locations along the 1,000-mile route.

First NC trails workshop about ‘Connecting Communities’

The first North Carolina Trails Workshop this week brought trail advocates, planners and recreation professionals together in Raleigh to discuss the nuts and bolts of “Connecting Communities” with trails. Under that theme, experts were asked to brainstorm and share ideas on how to leverage often-limited resources to get more trail miles in place.

Opening the two-day event, Carol Tingley, acting state parks director, quoted western author Louis L’Amour, “The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail.”

The trails conference brought together trail advocates, planners and builders.

The trails conference brought together trail advocates, planners and builders.

That seems evident in the fact that using trails (for hiking, biking and paddling) is the favorite activity listed in every survey of outdoor recreation. Discussing trails leads naturally to collaboration and cooperation, Tingley said. “Trails can make us better, can make North Carolina better and can make our communities better.”

A portion of the two-day workshop was attended by legislators and by Brad Ives, assistant secretary of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Ives told the group that North Carolina is committed to continuing trail grant programs to the extent possible, in part because dynamic trails as part of a broad outdoor recreation scene are a factor in a region’s economic health.

The event was staged by the trails program of the state parks system, which works with local

Carol Tingley, acting state parks director, talks with Paul Hart, a former park superintendent now working with Harnett County recreation.

Carol Tingley, acting state parks director, talks with Paul Hart, a former park superintendent now working with Harnett County recreation.

governments in trail planning efforts, administers grant programs and guides development of the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail. Workshop panel sessions explored topics such as using GIS data for planning, preserving a sense of place and connecting communities with multi-use trails.

New state park rangers sworn as law enforcement officers

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASeven new North Carolina state park rangers received commissions as law enforcement officers Thursday. The rangers were sworn in by Superior Court Judge Douglas B. Sasser at a special ceremony at Umstead State Park and addressed by John Skvarla, secretary of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Receiving a commission as a Special Peace Officer at the end of 17-week basic law enforcement training is generally regarded as the last formal step before a ranger takes on full duties in a unit of the state parks system. During the training period prior to commissioning, a ranger is assimilated into the park and begins assuming duties in resource management and visitor service.

Beyond law enforcement skills, all are trained in medical first response, search-and-rescue, wildfire suppression, natural resource management, interpretive skills and environmental education.

John Skvarla, DENR secretary, praised the wide ranger of ranger skills.

John Skvarla, DENR secretary, praised the wide range of skills mastered by the candidates.

Noting the wide range of training before they can wear the traditional, campaign-style ranger hat, Skvarla told the group, “That’s quite a portfolio and you’ve earned it. I know you will discharge your duties well…It’s a hard charge. Every day, you’re called upon to do something different for everyone.”

Sasser, who has often visited the parks and is a scoutmaster, said that park rangers always impressed him with their knowledge, willingness to help and commitment. “With every ranger I met, it was obvious they loved what they are doing,” he said.

The state parks system has about 200 rangers and park superintendents who are law enforcement officers. Candidates are required to have at least a two-year degree, and many come to the job with four-year university degrees in curricula related to natural resource and/or park management.

The rangers who received commissions are: Joshua Aaron Banks at Jordan Lake State Recreation Area; Andrew James Boos at Falls Lake State Recreation Area; Mary Catherine Griffin at Hanging Rock State Park; Autumn Marie Kahl at Cliffs of the Neuse State Park; Aaron Allan Ledford at Jordan Lake State Recreation Area; Joshua Lee McIntyre at Jordan Lake State Recreation Area; James Thomas Rusher Jr. at Falls Lake State Recreation Area.

Highest-level protection sought for property added to state parks

Yellow Mountain State Natural Area has grown to 2,818 acres.

Yellow Mountain State Natural Area has grown to 2,818 acres.

Legislation pending before the North Carolina General Assembly this spring will grant ultimate protection to 17,000 acres added to the state parks system in recent years by incorporating those lands into the State Nature and Historic Preserve established by the state constitution.

The proposal that originated from the office of Secretary John Skvarla of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resource was drafted into legislation by the Environmental Review Commission in April and endorsed by the Council of State at a May 6 meeting.

The land has been acquired since 2009 for 23 units of the state parks system, with principal funding from the state’s conservation trust funds. The 91 tracts have an appraised value of $94.4 million and include 3,394 acres at Grandfather Mountain State Park, 1,823 acres at Chimney Rock State Park, 2,916 acres at Carvers Creek State Park and 2,818 acres at Yellow Mountain State Natural Area.

“This action reflects the growth of the state parks system and will ensure the protection of the land in perpetuity,” Secretary Skvarla said. “Lands designated to the State Nature and Historic Preserve are among the most cherished in North Carolina, and the state parks system is proud of its record of stewardship of these natural resources.”

North Carolina’s constitution establishes the State Nature and Historic Preserve as the legal vehicle that ensures conservation of land “as a part of the common heritage,” and designation restricts the use of that property to conservation and recreation purposes. Public land can only be added to the State Nature and Historic Preserve by a three-fifths majority vote in both houses of the General Assembly. Likewise, a three-fifths majority vote is required to remove land from the Preserve. The proposed legislation would authorize some minor deletions requested by the state parks system to improve park management or to allow minor road improvements.

Much of the property in the State Nature and Historic Preserve that is publicly accessible is recognized as an important component of North Carolina’s successful tourism industry as well. Gov. Pat McCrory announced earlier this month that the industry generated record visitor spending of $20.2 billion in 2013. An earlier study for the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation revealed that visitors to state parks contribute at least $400 million annually to state and local economies.

The state parks system manages 219,905 acres, most of it contained in 35 state parks, four state recreation areas and 20 state natural areas.

Number of state parks more than doubled in last 40 years

simple_stateOccasionally, it’s good to turn around and see just how far you’ve come.

The support group Friends of State Parks held its first meeting in 1973 and members recently digging into the organization’s history recall there were 16 designated state parks and two state recreation areas ready for the group’s support that year. Since then, the state parks system has grown to 35 state parks and four state recreation areas – along with 20 state natural areas, seven state lakes, four state rivers and four state trails. The system now manages more than 218,000 acres.

The state parks system has always been (and likely always will be) a work in progress as North Carolina grows and its conservation goals evolve. Actually, three state parks have been de-listed from the group of 40 years ago. Mount Jefferson was re-authorized as a state natural area (now under the administration of New River State Park). Masonboro Island became a state natural area now managed by the Division of Coastal Resources. And, Boone’s Cave – always a bit undersized for a state park – was put under the protection of Davidson County.

In 1973, the system was poised for a sudden growth spurt, thanks largely to the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which began channeling some money to the states for land protection. Another growth spurt began in the early 1990s as the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund was established.

The system and Friends of State Parks also harbored a “wish list” in the 1970s – areas of the state they thought might be good candidates for state park designation. Of that list of 12 high-quality land areas, eight eventually earned state park status – South Mountains, Crowders Mountain, Haw River, Eno River, Medoc Mountain, Goose Creek, Merchants Millpond and Jockey’s Ridge. (The Deep River is another that now is graced with a designated state trail.)

Even old-timers in the state parks might have trouble remembering all the parks on that list of 40 years ago. They were: Mount Mitchell, Fort Macon, Mount Jefferson, Stone Mountain, Pilot Mountain, Boone’s Cave, Hanging Rock, Morrow Mountain, Raven Rock, William B. Umstead, Jones Lake, Singletary Lake, Cliffs of the Neuse, Masonboro Island, Hammocks Beach, Pettigrew.

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