State parks gearing up for ‘Science in the Great Outdoors’

The NC Science Festival started in 2010 as the nation’s first statewide science celebration with more than a million people discovering science at a school, museum or park during three weeks in April. In 2016, parks become even bigger partners with the theme, “Science in the Great Outdoors.”

Kelvin visits the summit of Mount Mitchell.

Kelvin visits the summit of Mount Mitchell with his bag of chips.

Kelvin, the NC Science Festival robot mascot, is high on science and parks. He’s just back from Mount Mitchell, the highest point in the eastern U.S. and the first North Carolina state park in anticipation of the 2016 state parks centennial year.

The mountain is named after former UNC geology professor Elisha Mitchell, who first measured its elevation in 1835 using a mercury barometer. Dr. Mitchell’s calculations were surprisingly accurate, just 12 feet shy of the true 6,684 feet. His former student Thomas Clingman famously disputed his discoveries. Dr. Mitchell slipped off a waterfall to his death in 1857 while on expedition to prove his claim. Thankfully, Kelvin kept safe by staying on park trails.

Physics allows us to see the low atmospheric pressure or “thin air” atop Mount Mitchell. Here’s a simple experiment: take an unopened bag of potato chips or dried fruit from the valley and drive it up to the summit. Decreasing pressure causes air molecules to expand, inflating or even popping your bag. This change in atmospheric pressure also accounts for the mountain’s weather wonders. Average summer high temperatures are only near 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and the average annual snowfall is a whopping 120 inches.

The fate of high-elevation trees is an important topic for investigation.

The fate of high-elevation trees is an important topic for scientific study.

One environmental challenge clearly visible at the park are the dead Fraser fir trees. Scientists link this die-off with air pollution and an exotic-invasive insect, the balsam wooly adelgid. Thankfully, young fir trees are regenerating, likely with the help of modern technology that reduces air pollution. And, scientists are actively working on new ways to combat the invasive bugs.

With more young scientists interested in STEM, Mount Mitchell State Park has a bright future. We hope you join Kelvin in NC Science Festival activities at 41 state parks from April 8-24, 2016.

Pilot Mountain tries new method to improve forest

Sassafras Ridge at Pilot Mountain State Park had become so overgrown that only a single sun-loving sassafras tree could be found recently in the immediate vicinity, which features a TRACKS trail for kids’ exploration and education.

Wild berry plants appear on the forest floor after mulch treatment.

Wild berry plants appear on the forest floor after mulch treatment.

Decades of fire suppression on the mountain is largely to blame, having created an understory of flammable thicket and leaf litter susceptible to wildfires. The park set a goal of reducing this wildfire fuel to preserve canopy trees, remove smaller diameter trees and create conditions to favor native grasses, wildflowers and young pines and oaks. In the past few years, prescribed burns have been introduced in the park, but natural resource managers found another tool for their forestry toolbox.

With the help of Friends of State Parks and Friends of Suratown Mountains, the park purchased a forestry mulcher – a rubber-tracked machine on a mini excavator that turns the small-diameter, mid-story plants into mulch in winter months. This leaves canopy trees intact but allows sunshine to reach the forest floor. After a single growing season, low-growing black huckleberry and blueberry plants appeared – an important food source for wildlife.

Before mulching, the ridge had a tangle of underbrush and leaf litter.

Before mulching, the ridge had a tangle of underbrush and leaf litter.

Alongside the natural benefit to the forest, the program becomes a teaching tool on the Sassafras TRACK Trail.

Seven park rangers receive law enforcement commissions

Seven new state park rangers received commissions as law enforcement officers Tuesday at a special ceremony at William B. Umstead State Park.

Before the swearing-in ceremony, Superior Court Senior Resident Judge Nathaniel J. Poovey, told the rangers they have one of the best jobs in North Carolina, but those jobs come with high expectations. “You are the innkeeper, you are the steward of what is undeniably our state’s greatest assets,” he said.

Superior Court Senior Resident Judge Nathaniel J. Poovey speaks to the rangers and their families.

Superior Court Senior Resident Judge Nathaniel J. Poovey speaks before the swearing-in ceremony.

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.

Noting that 2016 will mark the 100th anniversary of the parks system, Mike Murphy, state parks director, said, “Our visitors have been making memories in state parks for 100 years, so you’re starting your career here as park rangers at a very auspicious time.”

Donald van der Vaart, Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, added that a ranger’s face is often the one that visitors will remember. “The kind of memories I’ve come away with are largely due to your work,” he said. “You are the teachers; you are the protectors; you’re the knowledge base here.”

The rangers who received commissions are: Charlotte Elizabeth Davis, Pettigrew State Park; Dylan Martin Joyce, Pilot Mountain State Park; Ian Phillip Magill, South Mountains State Park; Joseph Austin Paul, Hanging Rock State Park; Darius Lindsey Pollard, Hanging Rock State Park; William Darrell Stanley II, Kerr Lake State Recreation Area; and, Zackary Lynn Stephenson, Falls Lake State Recreation Area.

Also recognized at the ceremony were rangers who’ve received commissions in the past few months at small ceremonies across the state. They are: Patrick Joseph Amico, Fort Fisher State Recreation Area; Jesse Alexander Anderson, Pilot Mountain State Park; Malcom Scott Avis, Falls Lake State Recreation Area; Nicholas Paul Dioguardi, William B. Umstead State Park; Wade Stephen Engels, Crowders Mountain State Park; Leigh Ann Fox, South Mountain State Park; Kimberly Jean Radewicz, Falls Lake State Recreation Area; Mark David Sain, South Mountains State Park; Katharine Lynne Sanford, Dismal Swamp State Park; Amy Renee Shepherd, Lake Norman State Park; Alyssa Christine Taylor, Fort Fisher State Recreation Area.

State parks website friendlier to smartphones and tablets

An improved state parks system website at was introduced this month after a major redesign. Aside from refining many of the site’s most popular features, the upgrade results in a site friendlier to smartphones and tablets.

The website was one of state government’s first and remains among its most sprawling sites, with each of 41 state parks, state recreation areas and state natural areas having a substantial presence, alongside details of the other myriad programs of the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation. This marks the third major revision of the site since it was launched in 1996, and the complexity of the upgrade necessitated a two-year project that involved dozens of division employees and state park friends under the guidance of website manager Marla Laubisch.

The ways that people use the Internet constantly evolve. One of the most significant changes in recent years is that more people now use mobile devices to reach favored websites rather than desktop or laptop computers. And, social media plays a larger role than ever. The site is designed to allow the system’s 15 million annual visitors to find information to make decisions about visits quickly and efficiently.

Visitors to the site can now search for parks by favorite activities or features and further search those by cultural or historical relevance. A new “Things To Do” menu helps with this. Here are more new or enhanced features:

  • An “Events” calendar searches by park or by date; and upcoming events are highlighted on a park’s main page.
  • Users will find close integration with Facebook, Twitter, blog and other social media links, as well as support for the system’s reservations system and its mobile app.
  • A new “Park News” feature informs neighbors and close friends of individual parks of special events and happenings. Each park can post real-time alerts about closings and park emergencies.
  • Hiking remains the favorite activity for most visitors, and each park’s section includes trail descriptions, points of interest, photos and other information about its trail networks.

Because the website now is such a vital part of serving visitors and state park friends, it will always be a work in progress. So, feedback and suggestions on improvements are always welcome.

Rangers charge four people for poaching plants

State park rangers in western North Carolina apprehended four people recently for plant poaching at the Yellow Mountain State Natural Area in Mitchell County. It was the first such incident in state parks in recent years, though officials say poaching of galax, gensing and other plants is becoming more of an issue.

Yellow Mountain State Natural Area

Yellow Mountain State Natural Area

Four people were given citations Aug. 28 by Ranger Luke Appling and Superintendent Susan McBean of Grandfather Mountain State Park, which manages the nearby state natural area. McBean said the poachers were caught leaving the area with about 27,000 galax leaves in small bundles.

McBean said, “A big problem is that they were pulling it out by the root with the leaves attached, and this plant takes seven years from seed to producing seed.” She said that while patrolling the 3,111-acre state natural area, Ranger Appling regularly talks with neighbors about strangers in the vicinity and recently noticed a bushwhacked trail and disturbed areas on the mountain. “It was his due diligence in knowing where to go, when to go and what to expect,” she said.

Galax leaves are used in Europe's floral industry.

Galax leaves are used in Europe’s floral industry.

A ground-hugging plant, galax is used in Europe’s floral industry and can occasionally be legally collected by permit on national forest land, McBean said. Collecting galax is not as serious an offence as collecting ginseng, which is a felony, but state parks prohibit any collection of plants or minerals. On a recent hike, McBean found about a dozen Fraser fir and spruce seedlings that had been pulled and then dropped along a trail on Grandfather Mountain.

McBean said state and federal rangers have begun meeting regularly to discuss poaching issues and to share information.

Dragonfly Detectives test research skills in state parks

Just above the surface of an old farm pond at Jordan Lake State Recreation Area, the airspace is buzzing with dragons. It’s the perfect spot for young researchers to test their agility by balancing on logs while swinging their nets.

dragonfly detectives 1Dragonfly Detectives is an innovative partnership of the state parks system and the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences that trains 4th-8th graders as dragonfly citizen scientists at five state parks – Jordan Lake, Merchants Millpond, Lake Waccamaw, Cliffs of the Neuse and Goose Creek. During six separate field trips to a state park, students learn how to identify species, how to describe dragonfly behavior and how to capture and mark them on the wing.

An important lesson for the kids is that science requires a lot of patience and careful record-keeping. The students sit in total silence for multiple three-minute sessions while they count their study species, the crimson red Carolina saddlebags.

During another session, they take notes on dragonfly behavior such as feeding, mating or patrolling. Patrolling is when a territorial male dragonfly fights with rival males by periodically barnstorming off their lily pad perch.

This research yields data on dragonfly behavior, but also suggests how effective youth can be as scientists, said Chris Goforth, citizen science manager with the museum. Time and careful data analysis over a three-year period will help determine the reliability of young citizen scientists compared to professional researchers. But at any rate, a sense of wonder is fully engaged for the young Dragonfly Detectives.dragonfly detectives 3

dragonfly detectives 2

Elk Knob State Park shows families the glories of camping out

Ranger Kelly Safley, right, helps the Evans family position its tent at the Elk Knob State Park campout.

Ranger Kelly Safley, right, helps the Evans family position its tent at Elk Knob State Park.

Families at Elk Knob State Park Saturday night discovered that the sleeping-in-a-tent experience is almost an afterthought among all the rituals of camping out. There’s setting up the tent, building a campfire, cooking hotdogs over the campfire, playing outdoor games, making s’mores over the campfire, taking a hike, cutting into a fresh watermelon, watching the stars…and the list goes on.

For the seventh year, rangers at Elk Knob introduced a group of families to all those experiences at the park’s annual campout. For most, it’s their first taste of camping and it’s designed to ease the anxiety of young parents about a traditional American family activity.

“We’ve all been in a camper before, but I wanted our kids to sleep in a tent,” said Jeff Evans, a life-long outdoorsman and hunter who lives just a few minutes from Elk Knob, the highest peak in Watauga County.

The developing state park does not yet have a family campground – only remote backcountry campsites – but is blessed with a large grassy field surrounded by towering mountains. For the once-a-year event, the park’s staff has rounded up donated tents for the new campers to use. And, Rangers Kelly Safley and Brandy Belville were determined to pack the evening with activities.

“It’s become very popular,” Belville said. “And, I love the way the community has gotten behind the idea.” Boone outfitters Footsloggers chipped in with support and a resident expert who offered tips on campout techniques, outdoor cooking and equipment. The Mast General Store donated goodies and gear, and Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation naturalists participate with a popular program featuring live owls.

Here’s a photo gallery of the campout. Click any image to begin.

Authority approves land acquisition, critical maintenance projects for parks

ASHEBORO – The N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund Authority approved $2.4 million for critical repair and renovation projects and $1.5 million for land acquisitions at several state parks and natural areas.

The authority, which met Thursday at the North Carolina Zoological Park’s Schindler Wildlife Learning Center, also approved $1.48 million to go toward remaining acquisition costs of mainland property at Hammocks Beach State Park and $1.55 million for constructing a much-needed parking lot for trail access at Grandfather Mountain State Park.

NC Parks and Recreation Trust Fund met at the N.C. Zoological Park.

NC Parks and Recreation Trust Fund Authority met at the N.C. Zoological Park.

In April, the state announced the phased in acquisition of a 289-acre mainland addition to Hammocks Beach State Park. The waterfront tract on Queen’s Creek has long been identified as a critical need for the state park for traditional park facilities and to enhance protection of water quality, subaquatic vegetation and scenic assets on the creek. Prior to this acquisition, the park included only 30 mainland acres.

The land acquisition allocations approved by the authority will be combined with other funding sources to purchase 1,387 acres at Bullhead Mountain State Natural Area and Lake James, Chimney Rock, Elk Knob, New River and Lumber River state parks.

Maintenance and repair funds will be used for systemwide major maintenance and trails work, building demolitions, elevator repairs at Chimney Rock State Park, toilet building renovations at Fort Fisher State Recreation Area and channel dredging for ferry access at Hammocks Beach State Park. The funding for the projects is contingent upon the inclusion of PARTF funding and approval of the state’s budget by the General Assembly.

In other business, the authority began the review process for the local parks and recreation grant side of the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund. The Division of Parks and Recreation has received 69 applications requesting $13 million, according to Tim Johnson, chief of the Grants and Special Studies Section, who said the amount of funds available for the grants has not been determined.

PARTF is the primary source of funding to build and renovate facilities in the state parks as well as to buy land for new and existing parks. The PARTF program also provides dollar-for-dollar grants to local governments. Recipients use the grants to acquire land and/or to develop parks and recreational projects that serve the general public.

Mike Murphy, division director, provided authority members with an update on the 2015 legislative session, summarized the division’s activities in preparation for the North Carolina state parks system’s Centennial Celebration in 2016 and outlined Gov. Pat McCrory’s ConnectNC bond initiative and efforts to educate citizens about the initiative and the state’s infrastructure needs. The ConnectNC initiative would earmark $67.3 million for projects in 28 state parks.

Neighborhood kids find lessons in the forests

(Submitted by Jennifer Fenwick, interpretation and education staff)

 Earlier this year, the state parks system launched a partnership with Neighborhood Ecology Corps (NEC), a non-profit, which equips urban middle school students to pay attention to the relationship between nature and community. Every Thursday after school, a group of 15 students gathered at Sanderford Road Community Center in Raleigh to learn about water, soil, air, and pollution and to consider how their neighborhoods compared to natural areas visited.

A hike into the Linville Gorge provides time for reflection.

A hike into the Linville Gorge yields a quiet moment.

On these visits, activities included examining aquatic macroinvertebrates at Eno River State Park, studying forestry at Raven Rock State Park, paddling at William B. Umstead State Park, fishing at Jordan Lake State Recreation Area, traveling to Hammock’s Beach, and a three-day camping trip to the mountains. The latter was the trip I attended and the one I wish to share a few highlights from:

On the first day, we rolled out on a biofuel bus to Grandfather Mountain. We explored the wildlife habitats for eagles, black bears, cougars, and river otter, then then headed up the mountain to meet naturalist Mickey Shortt. Through a guided tour on the trail, Mickey expanded our imaginations to view Grandfather not just as a mountain but also as an “island habitat in the sky.” Our hike continued on the mile-high swinging bridge where many of us conquered our fears and crossed the bridge despite the strong wind thrashing our faces and the uncomfortable squeaking of metal in our ears.

Later, we set up camp at Julian Price Park. For almost all of the kids, this was their first time camping, and to my surprise no one complained about pitching tents on wet and muddy ground. After a warm meal of tortellini donated by Friends of State Parks, we went on a night hike with Joy, a professor from Appalachian State University. At dusk we spotted deer prancing in the distance and about as soon as they left our sight, the light from the sky went out and so did our flashlights. In the dark with only Joy and the moon guiding us, no one seemed to mind the mud grasping our ankles, the humming of the bugs, or the darkened woods. We saw Venus in the sky, crayfish in the water, and on our silent hike back to camp, a magical firefly show.

We’d planned to wake at 7 a.m., forgetting that we were just guests in a forest; a host of birds had an earlier time in mind. So with not much choice, at 6 a.m. we crawled out of our tents. We met with Supt. Sue McBean of Grandfather Mountain State Park for a trail maintenance project. With tools in hand, we dug troughs, hammered rocks (a total hit with the middle school boys), and laid gravel and logs to manage trail erosion.

We then headed to Linville Gorge, the “Grand Canyon of the Southeast” and later to Black Mountain Campground. After welcome showers and a good meal, our night ended around the campfire where we made s’mores, listened to everyone’s favorite and least favorite moments, told stories, and sang songs. We slept well that night and awoke the next morning to the smell of pancakes and bacon. Breakfast was good, but what awaited us was even better. We piled into the bus and headed for the highest point east of the Mississippi at Mount Mitchell State Park.

The NEC group 'in the clouds' at Mount Mitchell State Park.

The NEC group ‘in the clouds’ at Mount Mitchell State Park.

The kids were surprised to find themselves in the midst of a cloud with temperatures in the 50s. In the warmth of an education building, Ranger Billy Drakeford, taught us the ecological similarities between Canada and Mount Mitchell, the environmental stresses on the park and tips on dealing with bears. As we hiked higher onto the observation deck, we got the sense that this was more than just reaching 6,684 feet. For the students, this was the accumulation of every field trip they had taken and everything they had learned. Standing there on the observation deck were more than just middle school students. These were young men and women who had been shaped by these experiences to become environmental stewards in their very own neighborhoods.

Gov. McCrory: Connect NC will benefit Hammocks Beach and state parks system

Gov. Pat McCrory combined celebration and a call to action in a visit to Hammocks Beach State Park Tuesday to gather more support for the Connect NC bond initiative.

The celebration was for the addition of 289 acres on the mainland of the coastal park, the result of a settlement with the heirs of the Hurst family. The Governor met with members of that family who attended the event and congratulated them on maintaining the family’s legacy of conservation.

Gov. Pat McCrory talks about Connect NC flanked by Donald van der Vaart, Secretary of DENR, and Susan Klutz, Secretary of the Department of Cultural Resources.

Gov. Pat McCrory talks about Connect NC flanked by Donald van der Vaart, Secretary of DENR, and Susan Kluttz, Secretary of the Department of Cultural Resources.

McCrory asked the more than 100 state parks supporters present to contact members of the N.C. General Assembly to place the bond referendum before voters this year. Bond approval would result in $67.3 million for capital and land acquisition projects at 28 state parks, including $1.5 million to begin building recreation facilities on the property acquired at Hammocks Beach. The Governor made a similar plea June 11 at Pilot Mountain State Park where almost $6 million would be earmarked for a visitor center and related facilities.

“Our investment in Hammocks Beach will allow the park to operate year-round by providing an expanded mainland area for environmental education and popular outdoor recreation areas,” McCrory said. “Improvements at Hammocks Beach and other state parks will allow us to meet the needs of our growing state population and to ensure these cherished assets are preserved for generations to come.”

In his argument for the $2.85 million bond package for transportation and infrastructure, McCrory recalled the initiatives of U.S. Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower that, he said, benefitted a generation of Americans in the areas of conservation and transportation.

Gov. McCrory meets with Harriet Hurst Turner and other members of the Hurst family.

Gov. McCrory meets with Harriet Hurst Turner and other members of the Hurst family.

Connect NC projects will benefit every community across the state while creating thousands of jobs along the way and taking advantage of record low interest rates. Because of the state’s fiscal strength and strong balance sheet, no tax increase is needed to fund the bonds and the state’s AAA bond rating would be preserved.

“We are very excited for this capital infusion in state parks, and I think our population will really benefit from the new visitor centers, new campgrounds, new trails and new day use facilities,” said Mike Murphy, state parks director. “It will be a wide range of new opportunities for our citizens and visitors to enjoy the parks.”

Learn more about the Connect NC bond proposal here.


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