Trust fund authority reviews statewide parks and recreation needs

TROUTMAN – North Carolina’s Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP) for 2015 has received widespread public interest and involvement as the state has compiled information for the five-year planning document, according to state park officials.

Tim Johnson, head of grants and special studies for the state parks system, describes a statewide outdoor recreation plan for authority members.

Tim Johnson, head of grants and special studies, describes a statewide outdoor recreation plan for authority members.

“The SCORP provides a framework for addressing issues, needs and opportunities related to improving outdoor recreation,” Tim Johnson, head of grants and special studies for the Division of Parks and Recreation, said at a meeting of the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund Authority March 27 at Lake Norman State Park.

The meeting was held in the park’s new visitor center. A dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new facility is tentatively scheduled for April 23.

Johnson said the SCORP, which is under final review, is required under the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund Program. LWCF, which sunsets this year unless Congress acts to extend the program, has provided $80 million for more than 900 state and local projects since 1965. Staff provided the boards with information about efforts under way in support of preserving LWCF.

Johnson also told board members local governments have submitted 69 grant applications requesting $13.1 million from the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund during this year’s local grants cycle. The board will consider the applications after the state’s budget is approved later this year.

In other news, Brian Strong, the division’s chief of planning and natural resources, said the master plan for the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail is nearing completion. The 1,000-mile trail corridor will ultimately link Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains to Jockey’s Ridge State Park on the coast. Nearly two thirds of the cross-state route has been completed as a continuous, off-road trail experience, offering opportunities for hiking, biking and horseback riding through some of North Carolina’s most scenic landscapes. Where the trail has not yet been completed, detours along secondary roads allow ambitious hikers to complete the trek.

“We need strong partners and a strong plan with some flexibility as we continue to move forward with this very ambitious effort,” Strong said.

The completed master plan will chart a path toward official designation of remaining portions by setting priorities for completing trail sub-sections. It will also unify regional planning efforts, identify potential new partners and funding strategies, and establish guidelines for signs and publicity.

The PARTF trustees also learned about the purpose and history of the state’s Recreation Resources Service, which provides assistance to public and private segments of the leisure service industry within North Carolina, including municipal and county park and recreation departments, nonprofit agencies, private recreation agencies, recreation consumer groups, and recreation and park board and commission members.

RRS, the nation’s oldest technical assistance program for parks and recreation agencies, provides technical assistance, applied research, and continuing education for the state, RRS Director Pete Armstrong said. Services are provided through a partnership of the Division of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism Management at N.C. State University.

Mike Murphy, director of the Division of Parks and Recreation, provided board members with updates on the 2015 General Assembly, division activities and plans for the state parks system’s 100th anniversary in 2016.

Researcher inventories native bees at Umstead

(The following was submitted by April Hamblin, a graduate student at North Carolina State University.)

William B. Umstead State Park in Raleigh is a place to relax and enjoy nature, but it’s also a place to ask questions about nature and try to answer those questions with science. As a graduate student at NCSU, I ask questions about how changes in our environment influences native bee populations.

NCSU graduate student April Hamblin gathers native bees at William B. Umstead State Park.

NCSU graduate student April Hamblin gathers native bees at William B. Umstead State Park.

There are over 500 species of native bees in North Carolina. Honey bees are non-native to America, originally from Europe. Most other bees in North Carolina are native and important because they are the most efficient pollinators. The reason honey bees are known for pollination is because they are managed at farms and other areas. Native bees also help pollinate agricultural areas, but are the main pollinators of natural environments. Native bees pollinate the berries for birds and backyard plants.

Since Umstead and 19 other parks and homeowners allow me to visit and collect these native bees, I can ask many scientific questions. How does temperature affect native bees? How does impervious surface – pavement or cement – affect native bees? How do flowers, bare ground and open areas affect them? And, how can we manage the environment to help the native bee populations?

To collect native bees, I put out florescent colored traps and also collect with a net. Another way to understand bees is to put out additional nesting resources. Most bees live in the ground, but many can live in hollow stems and reeds. These bees are too weak to chew through wood, so these materials make a great addition to any yard without risk of home damage.

Not only does studying native bees help me with my research, it also helps the park and other locations where I have collected. Umstead only had two bee species listed on the state parks’ Natural Resources Inventory Database before I collected here and they were the honey bee (Apis mellifera) and the carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica). Now, 20 more species have been added to the list and more may be collected this year.

It is important to document these species and others in the environment because the environment changes so much. In that way, someone in the future can perhaps use what we have learned today.

Carolina Beach State Park on the half shell

 

Meredith College students unload components of a new oyster reef at Carolina Beach State Park.

Meredith College students unload components of a new oyster reef at Carolina Beach State Park.

It was Carolina Beach State Park on the half shell this week for the North Carolina Coastal Federation and a busload of college volunteers.

Those partners took the first steps to build a 600-foot oyster reef on the Cape Fear River side of the park by filling thousands of mesh bags with old oyster shells and marl. The bags will later be carefully placed in the quiet waters as an attractive new home for live oysters. It’s the first such project at Carolina Beach, though the Coastal Federation has been instrumental in building similar reefs at Hammocks Beach and Jockey’s Ridge state parks.

Students from Meredith College in Raleigh supplied some serious labor and, in the process, got a lesson on an oyster’s life. Oyster spat – the larval stage of the mollusk – swim freely through the water before attaching to a hard surface. A reef of old oyster shells is just what they’re looking for. An oyster reef can slow erosion, and even more importantly, can help clean the water and attract other marine life, creating a healthier shoreline.

To make the best use of valuable oyster shells, limestone marl is used for the reef’s bottom layer. The volunteers separated marl and shells into mesh bags using a system of plastic tubes fitted onto racks. The finished bags were stacked near the shoreline and will be placed into the water on another workday in April.

Below is a photo gallery about the process. Click any image to begin.

State parks in the next 100 years

As the state parks system nears its centennial, a development plan for the next 100 years should include steps to expand and promote a parks system that is an economic and business recruitment asset, Gov. Pat McCrory said Tuesday in a ceremony commemorating the birth of North Carolina’s first state park.

Gov. Pat McCrory speaks to parks supporters.

Gov. Pat McCrory speaks to parks supporters.

The governor’s remarks came moments before signing a proclamation recognizing the legislative authorization of Mount Mitchell State Park March 3, 1915 and declaring the first week of March as “North Carolina State Parks Week.” The event at William B. Umstead State Park was a precursor to a yearlong centennial celebration planned for 2016.

“As we celebrate the past, we need to develop a strategy for the future,” McCrory told a group of parks supporters. “I’m preaching to the choir, and what we need to do is take this choir throughout North Carolina.”

North Carolina conservation and business leaders joined the governor and Donald van der Vaart, secretary of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, for the celebration. Jean Spooner, chair of the Umstead Coalition, spoke about the natural and cultural significance of North Carolina’s state parks. Alex Bernhardt, chairman of Lenoir-based Bernhardt Furniture, spoke about the value of state parks and how they provide a greater quality of life in North Carolina for businesses and their employees.

Bernhardt said the public-private partnership of conservation groups and the state parks system can continue to leverage assets to create more parks and that effort is critical. “The tremendous economic impact to North Carolina and its citizens is well worth the investment the state continues to make,” he said.

From left, Donald van der Vaart, secretary of the N,C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Mike Murphy, state parks director, Gov. McCrory, Jean Spooner of the Amsted Coalition, Alex Bernhardt, Chairman of Bernhardt Furniture.

From left, Donald van der Vaart, secretary of the N,C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Mike Murphy, state parks director, Gov. McCrory, Jean Spooner of the Umstead Coalition, Alex Bernhardt, Chairman of Bernhardt Furniture.

“This is a great kickoff to our celebration of state parks in North Carolina,” van der Vaart said. “Beginning in 1916, North Carolina set a standard for the nation in protecting its natural resources. The state parks centennial in 2016 will be an opportunity for all North Carolinians to renew a shared commitment of stewardship of those resources.”

North Carolina intends to celebrate the state parks system’s centennial throughout 2016 with a series of special events at every state park and a public-private partnership campaign in concert with Friends of State Parks, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting the system.

Reacting to perceived threats to an iconic natural resource, North Carolina’s governor Locke Craig and its general assembly, in session March 3, 1915, took a bold first step to protect Mount Mitchell. Proclaiming, “Whereas, it is deemed desirable that this beautiful and elevated spot shall be acquired and permanently dedicated as a state park for the use of the people of the entire state seeking health and recreation…” the legislators launched an effort to purchase property on the mountain’s summit. By the end of 1916, 795 acres had been acquired to create the first state park in the Southeast.

Friends of State Parks energizes for centennial

On the eve of the state parks system’s centennial, the nonprofit Friends of State Parks has developed a strategic plan that will help it become a more effective advocate for state parks in North Carolina.

“We need to grow up, mature and celebrate this birthday,” Mary Penny Kelley, president of the organization, told members during its annual conference in Raleigh Tuesday. The strategic plan, she said, concentrates on developing “superpowers” to reach its goals.

David Pearson, left, executive director of Friends of State Parks and Jim Richardson, board member, are recognized during the annual meeting.

David Pearson, left, executive director of Friends of State Parks, and Jim Richardson, board member, are recognized during the annual meeting.

The statewide Friends of State Parks has been actively involved in centennial planning and will lead an effort to gather corporate and citizen support of the year-long celebration in 2016.

Mike Murphy, director of the state parks, said the centennial is a premier opportunity to leverage publicity for support of state parks as well as its varied friends groups. The opportunity, he said, “gives us a way to speak to leadership about the value of parks and the need to fund them.”

Murphy detailed centennial plans, which include special events at every state park and signature events at Mount Mitchell and Fort Macon. More detail came from Sean Higgins, head of the parks system’s education program who is coordinating those events, and from MSA, a Raleigh-based firm developing a marketing strategy for the centennial.

In recent years, Friends of State Parks has nurtured its role as an umbrella organization, helping local friends groups organize to support individual parks. It has also increased funding for education programs such as the Junior Rangers and school field trips. In 2014, it hired former president Dave Pearson as an executive director.

Click here to find out more about Friends of State Parks and how to become a member.

It’s the Year of the Amphibian in NC state parks

If you’re a true tarheel you should be able to name our two state amphibians. No?

The fifth specially designed bandana celebrating an annual nature theme.

The fifth specially designed bandana celebrating an annual nature theme.

Among the reasons that we have two state amphibians is that North Carolina is a hot spot for those critters. The state’s mountain region boasts the highest salamander diversity in the world (including the impressively large hellbender), and the southeastern U.S. has the highest frog diversity in the country.

So, it’s time to “Dance in the Rain” in 2015, the Year of the Salamander in North Carolina state parks.

State parks will continue the tradition of celebrating an annual theme with fun activities, excursions and another specially designed bandana. The Year of the Amphibian marks our fifth year of celebration. Parks will offer a variety of frog and salamander related programs, hikes and family events. Also, we will build new partnerships with other natural resource agencies and universities to promote research and conservation of amphibians across the state. Click here to find some of the events near you.

It won’t be long before cold winter days begin to soften with the sound of frog calls signaling the coming of spring. Let this change in season be an invitation to get out into the parks and celebrate with us.

Oh yes, our state amphibians are the marbled salamander (Ambystoma opacum) and pine barrens tree frog (Hyla andersonii).

Hit the trails for the Photo Scavenger Hunt Challenge

Here’s a great reason to get out into the state parks with your camera (or smartphone): the NC State Parks Photo Scavenger Hunt Challenge.

photoscavengerFirst prize is a $50 gift card and a tent from outfitter REI and a free night’s camping in a state park. There are other great prizes, too, in this contest that’ll end on Earth Day April 22.

Entering the challenge is easy. Simply visit a state park and photograph 12 of 15 items on our list – such as a beautiful view, a historic feature, plant life, etc. – and send the images to us. Your name will be entered into a drawing for prizes. Visit a different state park and complete the challenge and your name will be entered again.

Click here to find details and the complete rules.

The Photo Scavenger Hunt Challenge was created by seasonal state parks employees who attended the Outdoor Nation Summit last year at Jordan Lake. The group won a $1,000 grant for the concept to get more people outside and engaged in nature. Outdoor Nation connects millennials (generally ages 18-28) from across the country to promote the outdoors to their generation. The statewide Friends of State Parks and REI thought enough of the idea to volunteer as sponsors.

You’ll soon see posters in the state parks promoting the Photo Scavenger Hunt Challenge to remind you to get onto the trails with that camera.

North Carolina state parks report record attendance of 15.6 million visitors in 2014

North Carolina’s state parks and state recreation areas had record attendance in 2014, with 15.6 million visitors, a 10 percent increase over 14.2 million the previous year.

William B. Umstead State Park reported record attendance of 1.29 million in 2014, one of six parks with more than one million visitors.

William B. Umstead State Park reported record attendance of 1.29 million in 2014, one of six parks with more than one million visitors.

Among 39 state parks and state recreation areas, 27 reported increases in attendance in 2014. William B. Umstead State Park in Wake County reported the highest attendance at 1.29 million visits, and was among six state park units logging more than a million visitors. The others were Fort Macon and Jockey’s Ridge state parks and Falls Lake, Jordan Lake and Kerr Lake state recreation areas.

“Record visitation in 2014 dramatically reflects the value North Carolinians place on our state parks, especially for the communities where they’re located and their economies,” said Mike Murphy, state parks director. “The state parks system will hold its centennial in 2016 and planning is underway for special events and opportunities to celebrate a system that has become an institution for recreation, conservation and connection with nature in our state”

Over the past 25 years, attendance at state parks has nearly doubled. In 1989, eight million people visited state parks and state recreation areas.

A number of factors likely contributed to the record visitation, among them a long list of special events at the parks, beginning with First Day Hikes on Jan. 1. More than two dozen events were scheduled for National Trails Day in June and every park held special interpretive programs during Take a Child Outside Week in September. And, newly created events began to gain traction, including a paddle festival at Hammocks Beach State Park and a long-distance hiking challenge at Hanging Rock State Park. Additionally, no parks were closed for extended periods due to weather emergencies or construction.

The new Carvers Creek State Park in Cumberland County logged its first full year of operation, reporting 74,220 visitors. Parks reporting the largest increases in visitation included Crowders Mountain in Gaston County (65 percent), Hammocks Beach in Onslow County (32 percent), Lake Norman in Iredell County (70 percent), Lake Waccamaw in Columbus County (26 percent) and Morrow Mountain in Stanly County (64 percent).

The state parks system manages more than 223,000 acres within state parks, state recreation areas and a system of state natural areas dedicated to the conservation of rare resources. Through its New Parks for a New Century initiative, six new state parks have been added to the system since 2003.

Raven Rock steers toward mountain biking

Volunteers, directed by seasonal employee Joe Franks begin clearing a biking trail corridor.

Volunteers, directed by seasonal employee Joe Franks, begin clearing a biking trail corridor.

Raven Rock State Park in Harnett County will join our group of mountain biking destinations, with plans to build up to 20 miles of bike trails over the next several years. With a group of volunteers, the park launched the project Monday with a modest start at clearing brush from the first trail corridor.

“There is a lot of excitement from park visitors, volunteers and the local community about adding new mountain bicycle trails to the region,” said Superintendent Jeffrey Davidson. “It is proposed to have the first of three loops bike-ready in mid- to late 2015.”

The more people who get excited about the new trails and volunteer to help, the quicker the project will advance. The park plans a series of workdays. (The next is Sunday Jan. 25; click here for details.)

The park received two grants totaling $200,000 from the federal Recreational Trails Program to create a network of beginner, intermediate and advanced trail loops. The first step is to build the beginner loop, expected to cover about six miles. Hikers will be welcome on the new trails, as well. The trail network will be in the southeastern section of the park (Moccasin Branch area) with a trailhead near the picnic shelter.

Mountain biking trails are being added to several state parks in the system.

Mountain biking trails are being added to several state parks in the system.

Mountain biking is a booming outdoor sport, and the state parks system is adding trail networks in parks that can accommodate them. The largest network in the system is at Lake Norman State Park, where volunteers have created more than 30 miles of trails. Lake James State Park opened a 15-mile network in 2014.

First Day Hikes cover 7,010 miles on state park trails

Park Superintendent Kelley King leads hikers along a new trial at Haw River State Park.

Park Superintendent Kelley King leads hikers along a new trial at Haw River State Park.

In crisp, clear winter weather, the fourth annual First Day Hikes in North Carolina’s state parks set a record that will be hard to top in coming years; 2,980 hikers covered a combined 7,010 miles on park trails in just a few hours of winter daylight.

The 49 guided hikes ranged from modest “leg-stretchers” on easy interpretive trails to a six-mile trek from Crowders Mountain State Park into South Carolina on the Ridgeline Trail. High-elevation hikers at Elk Knob and Mount Mitchell were undeterred by wind chills in the 20’s, while many on the coast were blessed with shirtsleeve weather in the afternoon.

At Haw River State Park, 62 visitors were the first ever to walk a new, 3.2-mile trail to be opened for regular public use later in 2015. It meanders through a 692-acre tract acquired from real estate development company Bluegreen in 2008 that lies just west of the park’s Summit Environmental Education Center. The interim development on the property will introduce traditional state park facilities at Haw River.

At Pettigrew State Park, visitors watched wintering tundra swans, while at Lake James they explored an old homestead. A selection of companion dogs was common on most of the hikes, but at Pilot Mountain, hikers shared the trail with a pair of llamas brought by their owners from a local farm.

Of course, attendance was highest at Eno River State Park, where a popular New Year’s Day hike staged by the Eno River Association has long been a tradition. The park had 702 visitors enjoying two leisurely hikes and fellowship. Elsewhere, attendance was highest at Raven Rock State Park (243), Haw River State Park (123), Dismal Swamp State Park (105) and Fort Macon State Park (101).

Rangers at many parks reported full parking lots throughout the day, suggesting that visitors registered for First Day Hikes were just a slice of total attendance on the first day of 2015. At Medoc Mountain, Ranger Ryan Newsome suggested his 33 hikers make it a New Year’s resolution to get out and hike in a state park at least once a month, and several families agreed to take on that challenge.

Here’s a photo gallery of First Day Hikes 2015. Click on any photo to begin.

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