Hikers brave chilly, wet weather for First Day Hikes

Despite chilly, soggy New Year’s Day weather, 2,049 visitors collectively hiked 4,952 miles on the 2017 First Day Hikes event, with guided hikes offered Jan. 1 in every state park and state recreation area.

Throughout the system, 55 hikes were arranged by park rangers and volunteers, many offering the distinctive flair of the state park.

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Hikers at Weymouth Woods.

Chimney Rock State Park earned the distinction of the “first” First Day Hike with 75 visitors making the 6.5-mile trek up and down the park’s entrance road starting at 12:01 a.m. Carolina Beach State Park attracted 190 hikers for a two-mile stroll, and 125 runners joined the 2nd Annual First Day 5K run at Haw River State Park. One dedicated family joined both the Goose Creek State Park hike at 10 a.m. and the Medoc Mountain State Park hike at 2 p.m.

This was the sixth year that North Carolina State Parks staged First Day Hikes, although the tradition began at Eno River State Park in the early 1970s.

For 2017, hikers enjoyed an added bonus by adding their mileage to the North Carolina State Parks 100-Mile Challenge – to walk, hike, paddle, cycle or otherwise explore 100 miles in the state parks. Details about the 100-Mile Challenge can be found here.

Nationally, First Day Hikes is promoted by America’s State Parks and the National Association of State Park Directors, with more than 400 hikes scheduled in state parks across the country.

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Haw River State Park included a 5k run in its event.

High-quality Carolina bay may be added to state parks system

A forested Carolina bay in Robeson County could be preserved within the state parks system, thanks to a partnership with Audubon North Carolina and The Conservation Fund. The 977 acres of Warwick Mill Bay near Lumberton is a significant nesting site for the federally-threatened wood stork and other wading birds.

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Warwick Mill Bay has the distinctive oval shape of all Carolina bays and is covered by forest and wetlands.

The Conservation Fund recently purchased the property in the Lumber River Basin and will transfer it to North Carolina State Parks for possible designation as a state natural area once a grant from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund is available. Significant funding for the $1.3 million acquisition has been provided by the North Carolina Environmental Enhancement Grants Program, the Cleanwater Management Trust Fund, and generous private support from Fred and Alice Stanback.

Warwick Mill Bay is one of the state’s few remaining large, relatively undisturbed Carolina bays. Several state parks are located on Carolina bays including Lake Waccamaw, Singletary Lake and Jones Lake, and some smaller, dry bays are located within southeastern parks.

“The size and diversity of Warwick Mill Bay makes it important alone,” said Walker Golder of the National Audubon Society. “Few large Carolina bays remain in a relatively undisturbed state. Protecting this large Carolina bay will preserve this unique natural feature along with its wetlands, many species of birds, and other wildlife that occur in the bay.”

Audubon NC plans to work closely with North Carolina State Parks to develop a long-term conservation and management plan for the property to preserve its ecology, water quality and cultural values.

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Wood stork, a federally-threatened wading bird species.

“A recent survey of wading birds revealed this land is far more important for bird conservation than we thought,” said Curtis Smalling of Audubon North Carolina. “An overflight of the property by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission revealed an estimated 250 breeding pairs of federally-threatened wood storks, making it one of the largest wood stork colonies in North Carolina and one of the most significant in the southeastern US. Protecting this land will go a long way in helping preserve this species.”

 “The Warwick Mill Bay has been a conservation priority for the state for the last three years because of the high quality breeding habitat it provides, and we are honored to help facilitate its purchase to meet the needs and the goals of North Carolina State Parks and Audubon NC,” said Bill Holman, The Conservation Fund’s North Carolina state director.

Warwick Mill Bay was famous in the mid-20th Century for its very large wading bird colony. Along with the wood stork, the colony consists of white ibis, great egret, little blue heron, cattle egret, snowy egret, great blue heron and green heron.

Repairs at South Mountains after the wildfire will take time

The wildfire at South Mountains State Park still smolders, but rangers, foresters and other officials are quickly making plans to repair trails, remove hazards and return the landscape to its natural state. The goal is to reopen the park as soon as practical, though no date has been set and some areas may be off-limits for quite some time.

Firefighters, with the help of infrared technology, are still searching for hotspots that need attention in the 6,435-acre fire zone. Technically the fire is 90 percent contained.

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Chestnut Knob Trail sustained considerable damage.

Fourteen trails (27.3 miles, nearly 60 percent of the park’s trail system) were affected by the wildfire to varying degrees. Each mile must be carefully inspected for dangerous limbs, trees that might topple, severe erosion and other hazards, as well as trail signs and gates that were damaged or destroyed. After that inspection, rangers must set priorities for restoring the trails and determine the cost and manpower necessary.

The blaze started Nov. 6 near the Chestnut Knob Trail, which sustained considerable damage. It’s likely that when the park reopens, that trail and some others will remain closed until proper repairs can be made. Aside from possible dangers, hikers could further damage trails that are fragile after the fire.

The specific trails that were affected by the wildfire are: Lower CCC, Upper CCC, Horse Ridge, Sawtooth, Little River, Chestnut Knob, Upper Falls, Shinny, Possum, Fox, Headquarters, High Shoals Falls, Turkey Ridge and Benn Knob.

After the fires

As wildfires swept across 7,200 acres at Chimney Rock State Park and 6,400 acres at South Mountains State Park this month, there were plenty of comments on social media lamenting the imagined “devastation” and “loss” of these two much-beloved landscapes

That simply didn’t happen. Our rangers, foresters and natural resource managers – who spent many long days working to contain the blazes that continue to smolder – are quick to point out that in the end, the fires will benefit the two parks.

From childhood, many people still hold that incorrect mental image of a forest fire that leaves in its wake charred hillsides and thousands of trees transformed into matchsticks. In the southeastern U.S. particularly, that almost never happens to forests that have shrugged off wildfires throughout history.

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A back burning operation at South Mountains State Park wildfire looks very much the same as a prescribed burn.

“Fire is a natural process anyway. It’s going to happen sooner or later,” South Mountains Park Superintendent Jonathan Griffith explained in a recent video. “In fact, we do prescribed burns from time to time in the park. It’s not like it’s going to completely destroy everything. Everything will grow back over…The fire itself, when it’s low intensity, will get rid of the understory and open it up and make it available for the larger trees to grow bigger.”

State parks, with the help of the North Carolina Forest Service and other partners, frequently stage prescribed burns designed to remove dead wood and leaf litter on the forest floor that fuels exactly the type of wildfires fought at these two state parks. In recent years, the prescribed fire program has been expanded into western state parks – where controlled burns can be more complex and demanding than those in the flatland forests of eastern North Carolina. Within a few months after a blaze – whether a wildfire or prescribed burn – greenery reappears on the forest floor. With fire having removed brushy understory, more sensitive plants have a chance to flourish again, often providing a more diverse diet for wildlife.

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Area of Pilot Mountain State Park two years after it was swept by a wildfire.

The Chimney Rock at Chimney Rock State Park – never directly threatened by fire – has reopened to visitors. That park’s Rumbling Bald Climbing Access and South Mountains will eventually reopen, but it will be a gradual process. Rangers and other staff must examine the trails for trees and limbs that might yet fall and other hazards. Already, parks and forestry officials are making plans to remove traces of fire containment lines and bulldozer tracks where possible to return the landscape to its natural state. The forest itself will do the rest.

Trust fund authority approves park projects

Land acquisition projects at six state parks and seven significant capital projects were funded in whole or in part by the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund Authority Friday at a meeting at Crowders Mountain State Park. The projects will be supported with an $8.9 million share of the trust fund designated for state parks.

The land acquisition projects totaling $2.2 million include $800,000 to expand New River State Park with the purchase of a former private campground at the Kings Creek Access and $1.7 million toward the total cost of an expected addition of 114 acres at Lake James State Park. Other funding will be directed to projects at Chimney Rock, South Mountains, Lumber River and Elk Knob state parks.

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Funding was approved for additional trail structures at Chimney Rock State Park.

The capital funding of $6.7 million includes support for such projects as trail structures at Chimney Rock State Park, a campground bathhouse at Cliffs of the Neuse State Park and a trail bridge at Lake James State Park that will link visitor areas at Paddy’s Creek and Longarm Peninsula. Also, $300,000 was set aside to begin repairs at Carvers Creek State Park where heavy flooding in October damaged a dam and nearby structures.

The Parks and Recreation Trust Fund is the principal source of funding for land acquisition and capital projects in the state parks, with 65 percent of trust fund revenue directed to those types of projects. The remainder is set aside for local government grants for parks and recreation projects and for coastal beach access.

North Carolina State Parks Director Mike Murphy briefed the authority about recent division activities, including 14 centennial-related events held since August and the popular state parks presence at the North Carolina State Fair. He also noted that the state parks system has begun planning to host the 2017 Association of Southeast State Park Directors conference in Winston-Salem.

‘Candid Critters’ project enlists volunteers to photograph wildlife

North Carolina State Parks and their visitors have been invited to be part of a statewide citizen science project to photograph wild animals with trail cameras to compile data over several years about the animals’ movements and habits.

candid-creaturesThe Candid Critters project will enlist trained volunteers to borrow the cameras from public libraries and help place and maintain the cameras in state parks and other public lands. The motion-activated camera traps allow scientists (and citizen scientists) to collect photos of animals without disturbing them. The cameras can capture thousands of digital photos, which are then stored online to gauge how the state’s mammal populations change over time and interact with humans and other species. Citizen scientists who own or purchase cameras can also contribute with photos from private property. Details of the program can be found here.

Candid Critters was created by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. The museum’s biodiversity lab has already worked with state parks operating wildlife cameras at Stone Mountain, South Mountains, Morrow Mountain and William B. Umstead state parks and Weymouth Woods-Sandhills Nature Preserve.

Some of the details of how volunteers and will set up and maintain the cameras in state parks are still being determined. That includes compiling a list of designated camera sites – where cameras can be located safely for visitors and to protect a park’s natural resources. Researchers hope to have a list of approved camera sites ready by March.

Arielle Parsons of the museum’s biodiversity lab said a goal is to have up to 30,000 sites established across the state over the next three years, making it the largest camera trap survey ever. “Before we can answer all these questions about mammals, we need to collect massive amounts of data,” Parsons said. “In this case, we’re using camera trap images from across all 100 counties in the state. We really need the public’s help to accomplish this. The more people that participate, the more we can learn about North Carolina’s critters.”

‘Augmented reality sandbox’ explores Crowders Mountain geography

Crowders Mountain State Park will get a dynamic new exhibit in its visitor center, thanks to a $4,500 grant from the Gaston Community Foundation to The Friends of Crowders Mountain.

crmo-exhibit-2The park’s exhibit hall will be outfitted with an “augmented reality sandbox,” a computer-aided display that’ll allow visitors to experience and experiment with the unusual geography of the park and its surrounding terrain. (Here’s a video of a similar exhibit.)

The sandbox will be built specifically to demonstrate the unique geology of the region and how forces of erosion created the park’s unique landforms. It will be a hands-on connection to the terrain experienced by more than 700,000 hikers each year. The exhibit should be especially fulfilling to visitors with physical challenges and visual impairments.

crmo-exhibit-1The grant will be matched by exhibit repair funds already allocated. The Friends of Crowders Mountain is greatly appreciative for the support of the Community Foundation for its support.