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

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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.

Conservancy aids acquisition of critical watershed at South Mountains State Park

Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina has partnered with the state parks system, the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund and others to conserve what was one of the largest remaining unprotected watershed tracts in the South Mountains.

Streams on the newly acquired property feed the pristine Jacob Fork River in the state park.

Streams on the newly acquired property feed the pristine Jacob Fork River in the state park.

Together, the conservancy and the state parks system purchased a 2,207-acre tract known as Simms Hill on June 4. Of the total acreage, 757 acres were acquired for addition to South Mountains State Park, bringing the largest state park to more than 19,500 acres.

Foothills Conservancy will use the remaining 1,450 acres to establish the regional land trust’s new South Mountains Headwaters Preserve for the protection and enhancement of water quality, biodiversity and wildlife habitat. A permanent conservation easement protecting 300-foot streamside buffer zones on 624 acres of the property was conveyed to the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, And, Foothills Conservancy acquired an additional 43-acre tract earlier this year, which will also be part of the new preserve.

“This latest acquisition by Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina will protect a Significant Natural Heritage Area in South Mountains State Park as well as water quality in the park’s pristine streams,” said Mike Murphy, state parks director. “It’s a great example of the conservancy’s commitment and our proven partnership to safeguard natural resources for future generations.”

More than 16 miles of headwater streams lace the rugged, heavily forested mountain tract and feed the designated outstanding resource waters of the Henry Fork and Jacob Fork rivers. These rivers converge downstream to form the South Fork of the Catawba River, a major tributary of the Catawba River that ultimately supplies clean drinking water to more than two million people.

The watershed property and preserve are northeast of the Clear Creek area of the park.

The watershed property and preserve are northeast of the Clear Creek area of the park.

Lake James State Park introduces boat-in camping experience

Boat-in campsites at Lake James provide a new mountain lake experience.

Boat-in campsites at Lake James State Park  provide a new mountain lake experience.

Lake James State Park in Burke County has introduced a new mountain lake experience, having just opened a boat-in camping complex at its Paddy’s Creek Area.

The facility has 30 campsites that can be reached only by boats, canoes or kayaks at three separate spots on the tip of the Long Arm peninsula, less than one mile northeast of the park’s swim beach. The reservation-only campsites are furnished with picnic tables, fire pits, tent pads and stunning views of the 6,812-acre lake.

The campground was constructed entirely by staff at Lake James State Park and from nearby state parks over the past year. The $173,000 project was funded in part by Friends of Lake James State Park and a grant from the Rostan Family Foundation. The project includes an unpaved access road along the length of the peninsula that aids in security for the campground and that will allow further park development in other areas of the peninsula.

“This camping complex is part of an exciting and expanding menu of outdoor activities at Lake James, and although it’s a premium recreation option, it was created at low cost thanks to the dedication of our maintenance personnel and rangers,” said Mike Murphy, state parks director. “The state park also owes much of its growth and success to strong community support.”

Much of the lake shoreline is steep but there are scattered beach areas perfect for landing boats, kayaks and canoes.

Much of the lake shoreline is steep but there are scattered beach areas perfect for landing boats, kayaks and canoes.

Lake James State Park opened a 15-mile network of mountain biking trails in mid-2014. Park staff assisted in that project and also built the award-winning Holly Discovery Trail for kids. The park expects to begin construction this summer on a traditional family campground with drive-to campsites at Paddy’s Creek. The park’s Catawba River Area nearby has a 20-site campground.

The boat-in camping complex has no dock, but boaters will find gentle beach areas for docking. For kayakers and canoeists, the campsites are an easy paddle from the bathhouse, and the location offers quiet coves for exploration. The sites have access to vault toilets, but no water is provided at the campground, and all trash must be carried out. Campers must have reservations, which can be made through the Central Reservations System or at the park office as late as the evening of the campout if a site is available. Campers can park at the bathhouse area (if paddling to the sites) or at Canal Bridge Access or Linville Access boat ramps.

The new amenities augment a swim beach, bathhouse, picnic area and foot trails that have been opened at the park’s Paddy’s Creek Area since 2010. The newly developed access is on 2,915 acres acquired in 2004 from Crescent Resources Inc.

Gov. McCrory brings Connect NC message to Pilot Mountain State Park

Gov. Pat McCrory, flanked by cabinet secretaries and budget director, explains the Connect NC bond proposal to parks supporters at Pilot Mountain.

Gov. Pat McCrory, flanked by cabinet secretaries and budget director, explains the Connect NC bond proposal to parks supporters at Pilot Mountain State Park.

Pilot Mountain State Park provided the scenery and Gov. Pat McCrory provided the strong argument Thursday for supporting the Connect NC bond package that includes $67.3 million for state parks.

On a visit to the iconic mountain, McCrory said the state parks system’s 2016 centennial gives North Carolinians a chance to honor its founders by “pushing forward” with the proposal that will finance projects in 28 state parks. The first step in that process is to convince the N.C General Assembly that a bond referendum should be put before voters in November, he said.

“Our state parks system is a major reason businesses and people relocate to North Carolina and a point of pride for those of us who call North Carolina home,” McCrory said. “The Connect NC bond proposal will address critical needs throughout the parks and improve the quality of life for everyone in the state.

The Connect NC proposal encompasses two bond issues totaling $2.85 billion for transportation and other infrastructure such as state parks, state historic sites and North Carolina’s zoo. McCrory’s team on the visit included Transportation Secretary Tony Tata, State Budget Director Lee Roberts, Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Donald van der Vaart and Cultural Resources Secretary Susan Klutz.

Roberts told state park supporters that the bond projects reflect strategic priorities and are tailored to different areas of the state. “We’re not doing anything extravagant. We’re just trying to keep with the necessary maintenance,” he said.

Gov. Pat McCrory takes in the view from the Little Pinnacle at Pilot Mountain State Park.

Gov. Pat McCrory takes in the view from the Little Pinnacle at Pilot Mountain State Park.

McCrory noted that the state parks system now serves more than 15 million visitors each year – including about 400,000 at Pilot Mountain – and that the demand for more park facilities will only grow with added population. The bond package includes almost $6 million for a visitor center and related facilities at Pilot Mountain. Across the system, the bonds would include funding for other visitor centers, trail development, campground and access improvements, day use areas and land acquisitions. The parks’ modern visitor centers are designed to green building standards and offer classrooms, exhibits and other educational features.

Connect NC projects will benefit every community across the state while creating thousands of jobs along the way. 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.

Click here to discover more facts about the Connect NC bond proposal and here to view a video about the bonds and state parks.

Visitors enjoying new vantage points for Chimney Rock views

An addition to the popular Outcroppings Trail at Chimney Rock State Park has been completed that restores access to three popular attractions on the mountain – the Subway, the Grotto and Pulpit Rock.

View of Lake Lure from the Grotto on Chimney Rock Mountain.

View of Lake Lure from the Grotto on Chimney Rock Mountain.

Each of the peculiar rock formations offers unique views of Hickory Nut Gorge, Lake Lure and surrounding mountains and they could be considered “opening acts” on the way to the commanding view from Chimney Rock itself near the mountain summit. The Outcroppings Trail, which scrambles up the mountain, was renovated in 2011, and this new trail spur relies on the same construction techniques. Those include intricate boardwalks and stairs to navigate near-vertical terrain and to protect delicate vegetation. Some of the materials had to be delivered to the construction site by helicopter.

Access to the three points of interest was lost in 2008 when an aging trail to that area of the mountain was among several trail segments declared unsafe. The closings spurred a determined effort to eventually restore access to hard-to-reach vantage points with new and renovated trails. The Outcroppings Trail is a linchpin in the overall restoration effort and also serves as an alternative to a 1940s-era elevator for access onto the mountain. Several phases of trail construction have been financed by the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund.

Mike Murphy, state parks director, said, “The renovation of these popular visitor features to make them safe and attractive has been a priority at Chimney Rock State Park. We’re confident our visitors will find the park more enjoyable that ever with an ever-expanding list of activities.

Team tackles hydrilla infestation in Eno River

Researchers and Eno River State Park staff are taking an initial step to combat the invasive aquatic weed hydrilla there, launching a two-year pilot project to introduce an herbicide into the river.

Hydrilla creates nearly impenetrable mats on the river's surface.

Hydrilla creates nearly impenetrable mats on the river’s surface.

The Eno River Hydrilla Management Task Force, representing several state agencies, approved installation of a mechanism near the park’s western boundary that gradually introduces the herbicide fluridone in hopes that it will be effective along a 16-mile downriver section. A contractor is supplying the herbicide in a concentration that is EPA-approved as safe for swimmers and boaters and non-toxic to fish and wildlife.

This marks the first time the herbicide is being used in a North Carolina river, although it has been used successfully at Lake Waccamaw State Park and Lake Gaston, Lake Tillery and Tar River Reservoir. After months of study and monitoring the river, the task force decided that pulling the weed by hand or introducing grass carp to consume hydrilla are not practical.

Hydrilla is a submersed aquatic plant that can create nearly impenetrable mats of stems and leaves on the surface of lakes, rivers and other waterways. An invasive species from Asia, hydrilla impedes recreational use of waterways, crowds out native vegetation and can ultimately harm fish and other aquatic species. The plant can also clog intakes where rivers or reservoirs are used for drinking water supplies and irrigation.

“This is a very real threat to the Eno River, both in terms of recreation and the vulnerable species in the waterway,” said Keith Nealson, Eno River State Park superintendent. “The Eno is not only a natural and cultural treasure for people in this region, but a bellwether for the health of the river basin, including Falls Lake and other sources of drinking water.”

Research by the task force and North Carolina State University suggests the hydrilla is spreading downriver at a rate of up to one mile a year and could soon become a serious nuisance in Falls Lake.

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