Things to know about park rangers

What do park rangers really do?  It’s more than you think.  Yes, they do get to wear a cool ranger hat and spend a lot of time outdoors.  But what you may not know is it is a position held by highly-educated and trained individuals.  Men and women who are passionate about their parks and are selfless in their quest to maintain and preserve the naturally wonderful spaces in North Carolina.

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Park rangers see, hear, smell and sense all manner of wildlife and the environment.  They get to know the park up close and personal over extended periods of time.  They teach and manage the natural resources with this knowledge and experience.

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Park rangers are trained in search and rescue and wildfire management as well as being commissioned law enforcement officers. They also perform park maintenance tasks such as restroom cleaning, lawn mowing, snow plowing, tractor driving, and boundary management.

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Park rangers do regular hazard tree assessments. They locate trees that will potentially fall and then remove them safely.  They are trained in chainsaw usage.

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Park rangers clean roadsides and pick up trash so the park stays clean. On busy weekends and holidays, they direct traffic and park cars.

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Park rangers go to local schools to present educational programs that address state curriculum standards.

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Park rangers do not hibernate in the winter.  They work on many important projects such as building and repairing trails and improving campsites and picnic areas when there are fewer people in the park.

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Park rangers do get to take long walks in the woods and hike for miles.  But usually, these journeys include bringing along hole diggers, paint cans, hammers, and machetes to install and touch up directional signs, mend boardwalks and clear trails.

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Park rangers get involved with scientific research to assist in inventory of threatened and endangered species. They count bats, flowers, trees, fish and all types of naturally wonderful things.

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Park rangers do spend time inside too.  They still have to check email, write reports, and update databases along with planning events and programs.

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Park rangers are the first responders in a park for any emergency. They communicate with local fire, EMS, and police when there is an emergency in or near the park. Since many parks are more than 30 minutes from the closest town or hospital, many rangers are also trained Emergency Medical Technicians.

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Park rangers are always training to learn more and do more to protect the park resources and park visitors. This could mean attending workshops to learn about amphibians, classes to learn about DWI detection, invasive species management seminars to learn how to manage kudzu, or canoe program leader training to learn how to lead groups on paddling trips.

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Park rangers are certified as Environmental Educators, Emergency Medical Technicians, Canoe/Kayak Instructors, Wild-land Firefighters, Pesticide Applicators, Wastewater Treatment Operators and many other things.

You can learn more about park rangers each month by tuning into our Ask A Ranger Podcast.

Catherine Locke is the Marketing Director for North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation.  Catherine has lived in North Carolina for three years and has been to almost all the state parks at least once.  She loves the outdoors and the people who work tirelessly to preserve and protect the parks for all of us to enjoy. 

You Thought You Knew: Pilot Mountain State Park

By: Katie Hall, Public Information Officer, N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation

How many people would you guess have marveled at Pilot Mountain from the highway or passed the signs for Pilot Mountain State Park without stopping? I’ve done it more times than I’d care to admit. Do we think because we’ve SEEN it that we’ve seen it?

For me, Pilot Mountain peeking over the horizon was a familiar sight.  I’d seen it countless times traveling to and from other places in the beautiful mountains of Virginia and West Virginia. Time after time, it rose from the Piedmont on my way to somewhere else, and again on the way back. I always seemed to be in too much of a hurry to stop.

Each time I passed it, I kicked myself as I recalled all the times I never stopped. That losing streak came to an end this year, and I was not disappointed. I thought I knew Pilot Mountain because I could see it from the highway… but I had no idea. Rewards at Pilot Mountain State Park arrive early and often starting with Little Pinnacle Overlook—a rocky hop, skip, and jump from the parking area on top of Little Pinnacle that gives way to a stunning view of Big Pinnacle.

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Near Little Pinnacle Overlook

 

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Big Pinnacle view from Little Pinnacle

The first thing that stands out about the park is accessibility. From the main parking area on top of Little Pinnacle, I had so many options that I sat for 15 minutes staring at maps trying to decide where I’d spend my time. I could set off on the 3-mile Grindstone Trail for a strenuous hike around the mountain and enjoy the Ledge Spring Trail along the way. From Grindstone, I could also make a connection to the 4.3-mile Mountain Trail. I was lured instead by the short and challenging Jomeokee Trail that connects Little Pinnacle to Big Pinnacle.

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The Jomeokee Trail is rugged and difficult, but it’s super satisfying to have just enjoyed the stunning view of Big Pinnacle and know that you’re on a short hike to get a much closer look. This trail is short enough to be quick, but difficult enough to go home with a sense of accomplishment.

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Stones steps on Jomeokee Trail

The reward of being up close and personal with Big Pinnacle is unparalleled, and the Jomeokee Trail is the only one that takes you this close. I won’t spoil that view for you because I insist you see it for yourself. The pinnacle’s sheared stone walls tower nearly vertically for 200 feet above you here, and it is breathtaking. So, we’ll just pick up where I decided that I’d hurry back to the car and squeeze in the Yadkin River section of the park.

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The Yadkin River section of Pilot Mountain State Park has two accesses. Bean Shoals Access in Surry County is 10 miles away and the closest to the mountain section of the park. One of my favorite parts of entering the park here was the dirt road drive to the parking area and its three creek crossings. This made me feel like I was in an Indiana Jones movie, but I guess in retrospect that was a bit of a stretch. 🙂

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Upon arrival, I found that I enjoyed the sandy riverbank soil, the observable abundance of butterflies, and the sounds of the babbling Yadkin. I headed down the Bean Shoals Canal Trail to get a peek at the river.

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The Bean Shoals Canal Trail is short but worthwhile. Crossing railroad tracks on the trail adds even more charm. The canal wall, built in the 1820s, is visible on this trail (better view from canoe, I hear.) If you turn left at the river onto Horne Creek Trail instead, you can hike down the river and then back north to Horne Creek Living Historical Farm. The Horne Creek Trail has about twice as much river frontage.

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Bean Shoals Canal Trail along Yadkin River

A scenic 2-mile section of the 165-mile Yadkin River Canoe Trail flows through the park. River birches, sycamores, and two small islands make this section of river special. I didn’t have a boat on my visit but look forward to revisiting this part of the park from the water.

I’m so glad I FINALLY dug in to Pilot Mountain State Park a bit, but I have to say I feel like I have SO much more to do there. I look forward to going back this fall with friends and boat in tow.

See you in our parks!


Katie Hall is the new Public Information Officer for North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation.  A life-long North Carolinian, Katie is on a mission to explore all the State Parks she has missed or hasn’t seen in a decade or more.  Her background is in environmental science, management and policy, communications and outreach.

 

 

 

 

North Carolina Biodiversity Project is now ONLINE!

By: Katie Hall, Public Information Officer, North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation

When you close your eyes and think about North Carolina, what do you see? Do you imagine the mountains, the coast, the town or city you live in? Do you think of a scarlet Cardinal perched on a branch, your favorite lake reflecting the sky, the towering long leaf pine? The familiar poem “The Old North State” by Leonora Monteire Martin beautifully captures the importance that our natural environment has on the way we remember our state.

Here’s to the land where the galax grows,
Where the rhododendron roseate glows;
Where soars Mount Mitchell’s summit great,
In the “Land of the Sky,” in the “Old North State.”
Here’s to the land of the cotton blooms white,
Where the scuppernong perfumes the breeze at night.
Where soft Southern moss and Jessamine mate,
‘Near the murmering pines of the “Old North State.”
…Here’s to the land of the Long Leaf Pine,
The Summer Land, where the sun doth shine.
Where the weak grow strong, and the strong grow great–
Here’s to “Down Home,” the “Old North State.”

We know enough about the trees, plants, and animals across our state to be flush with pride about the natural environments that we have here in North Carolina. Still, there is so much we don’t know, especially about how many of different plants and animals we have in any one area, which are declining and how fast, and critical measures we could take to conserve them.

This is where the North Carolina Biodiversity Project comes in. Using its new website, nc-biodiversity.com, the public can contribute to successful conservation of these species and actively show their support for the preservation of the natural areas of our state.

The NC Biodiversity Project is compiling and sharing information about a multitude of species in our state. They want to know not only what we have, but how they are distributed throughout the state, what habitats they’ve come to depend upon, and their conservation status within our state’s ecosystems.

The new website provides a centralized set of links to each of the projects taxon-focused sites and checklists and websites of other groups that share similar goals. North Carolina State Parks own Tom Howard worked with Harry LeGrand to developed the impressive Butterflies of North Carolina website, an important component of the statewide database.

What you can do to help: Go to the taxonomic group on the biodiversity project website based on the species you believe you’ve found, whether you’re near your home or on vacation within North Carolina. On the webpage for each taxonomic group, you will see a menu item to “submit a public record” or “submit an entry.” This is where you can submit a record of where and when you saw the species, with an option to include a photo.

Your participation is important in building the database into the most complete library of species possible. New species will come to our state, and some species won’t stay. Through it all, you can be a part of something big.

If you have questions or comments for the North Carolina Biodiversity Project, you may email ncbp.website@gmail.com.

Black Tea and Cypress Trees at Lumber River State Park

By: Katie Hall, Public Information Officer, NC Division of Parks and Recreation

Lumber River State Park, one of our southernmost properties, stretches 115 miles across four counties to the South Carolina border. Extensive timber transportation along the Lumber River (originally called “Drowning Creek”) in the late 1700s led to the settlement of several towns along its banks. It is North Carolina’s only blackwater river to earn federal designation as a “national wild and scenic river.” Staff who know our parks best call this one of the best paddling experiences in our state.

There’s something poetic about this peaceful river’s transition from hauling lumber to gently carrying paddlers and boaters between its quiet banks. The river is lined with cypress trees draped in Spanish moss, reminiscent of visits to Charleston or Savannah. It is nearly silent, save the songs of some magnificent birds, like the swallow-tailed kite and prothonotary warbler. Leached tannins from vegetation decay along the river leave the water clear and acidic and give it its golden brown color.

Photo by Charlie Peek

The Lumber River’s black waters make this ecosystem appear mysterious and intriguing. As we paddle, it draws me in the same way that a dusty, dog-eared old book or a tattered coat leaves one wondering what adventures it has under its belt.

The surrounding ecology locked in the fairytale-like atmosphere on the river—swollen-trunked cypress trees, bogs thick with worn stumps of drowned trees, and the slow, southward ramble of the water. Dragging our hands through the clear, cool water took the edge off the summer heat.

I was dying to see a river otter, but learned they aren’t very outgoing in this area. I knew to expect some interesting birds at the park.  The beautiful belted kingfisher knocked my socks off with its intense colors and stylish coif. Quite a beak for a little bird!

Belted Kingfisher

A great egret soared overhead and landed on a lofty branch that looked like it could never support its weight. I marveled as she balanced her bulky birdie self on the wobbly perch and scanned the river for a snack.

We completed an hour-long canoe paddle on this trip that seemed to fly by, and I can’t wait to get back to the park for a longer paddle. I look forward to the exploration I’ll be able to accomplish with my nimble kayak. We had a nice breeze for our paddle and weren’t bothered much by mosquitoes, but on a calmer day I’d imagine you’d want a hardy bug repellent.

Naked Landing Trail Access for hikes along the river

The riverfront hiking trails are not to be missed here. Beginning at the Princess Ann river access, you can enjoy a short trail along the highest bluff of the Lumber River including a 100-foot boardwalk, fishing pier, and an old millpond over 100 years old.  At the park’s Chalk Banks access, stroll a three-mile loop along the river’s edge next to serene wetland habitat and a pine and hardwoods forest. Pristine and quiet campsites are offered at the Chalk Banks Access along with a lovely day use area adjacent to a scenic river access.

Entrance to Chalk Banks Access
Riverside at Chalk Banks Access
Camping at Chalk Banks Access

Visitors, you’ll want sunscreen, a hat, and PLENTY of water on the river. The beauty of a river paddle is that it’s pretty difficult to get lost as long as you exit where you planned. The challenge is that it’s very difficult to go back the way you came. Make sure someone knows where you are, when to expect you to emerge from the river, and have your transportation planned for when you haul out.

Thanks for joining us on this journey. We hope to see you soon in our parks!

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Katie Hall is the new Public Information Officer for North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation.  A life-long North Carolinian, Katie is on a mission to explore all the State Parks she has missed or hasn’t seen in a decade or more.  Her background is in environmental science, management and policy, communications and outreach.

On the up and up at Elk Knob

By: Katie Hall, Public Information Officer, NC Division of Parks and Recreation

Turning on to “Meat Camp Road” just before getting to Boone makes me think of camping and eating lots of grilled meats, which I would argue are two of the best things in life. Nearly to Boone, I jumped off the highway and was at Elk Knob State Park within 20 minutes. The drive up to the park was lined with Christmas tree farms, rolling green hills and farm houses.

Entrance to park

Elk Knob State Park encompasses one of the highest peaks in North Carolina’s high country at 5,520 feet. The trail system in the park has something to offer every visitor. The Beech Tree Trail loops around the picnic area through the park’s American Beech forest at an elevation of 4,500 feet and is great for families. The up-and-coming Maple Run Trail is still under construction and is designed for cross country skiing and hiking. The two-mile Backcountry Trail winds down into the backcountry campsites and showcases the headwaters of the North Fork of the New River and Trout Lilys in spring. One of the parks system’s finest trails was my target for the day: the Summit Trail, which would lead me to spectacular views from Elk Knob.

Elk Knob Summit Trail

When I looked up at the winding switchbacks of the Summit Trail, I felt pretty confident. My friendly park ranger and hiking buddy planned to stay with me until about halfway to the summit, and then I would go it alone.  I learned that I had a long way to go to be a strong mountain hiker. I had to set our trek at a “piedmont pace,” which is what I’ve decided to call my slow (for now) hiking canter.

Wonderfully shady Summit Trail

Looking up at the steady climb of the trail, the switchbacks didn’t seem steep and in many places they appeared to flatten out. The trail offers full cover from the sun and changing scenery. Still, a steady incline for two miles over stones and tree roots can put you in your place quickly.  We stopped regularly to talk about the park, including the incredible group of volunteers who put in thousands of hours of work on the trail without bringing heavy equipment into the park.

Hand-laid stone steps on Summit Trail

Less than halfway up the Summit Trail, there’s a special treat. By that point, you already feel like you earned it. This overlook offers a shaded place to rest off of the trail and a stunning view.

Overlook on Summit Trail
View from overlook on Summit Trail

After a rest at the overlook, I felt recharged and ready to get back on the trail. Close to the summit, I met a steeper, stony climb. My ultimate reward arrived as I reached the summit and found two stunning and entirely different views—one toward the north and one toward the south.

I made it to the summit without ditching my gear 🙂

One of the best things about being on Elk Knob is the perspective you gain about where you are in the much larger Appalachian system.  From the summit, I saw familiar peaks like Three Top, Bluff Mountain, Mount Jefferson, The Peak, Grandfather Mountain, Mount Mitchell, Mount Rogers (Va.). My favorite part of this was seeing Grandfather Mountain from such a great distance, a familiar face (pun intended) of my childhood and a family favorite.  The fresh air and cool breeze were welcome rewards for the hike.

Elk Knob looking south

The way back down the switchbacks from the summit is mostly a breeze. I sailed down the mountain with a big smile.  I don’t mind admitting that I got a little overconfident with the ease of bouncing down the trails and twisted my ankle negotiating a rocky patch a bit carelessly. That brought me back down to Earth but it shook off quickly.

Heading down the Summit Trail

All in all, it took me about 70 minutes to reach the summit—and that’s with several brief stops—and about 30 to get back down. Make sure you have a pack of supplies when you head up to the summit. You will want your camera, plenty of snacks and about twice as much water as you would take on a regular walk or flat hike. Make sure someone knows you’re headed up and when to expect you back down the mountain. Leave yourself plenty of time to hang out on the summit a while.

See you in our parks!

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Katie Hall is the new Public Information Officer for North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation.  A life-long North Carolinian, Katie is on a mission to explore all the State Parks she has missed or hasn’t seen in a decade or more.  Her background is in environmental science, management and policy, communications and outreach.

Magnificent Morning on Mount Jefferson

By: Katie Hall, Public Information Officer, NC Division of Parks and Recreation

The winding road to Mount Jefferson State Natural Area takes you through the 100-year-old town of West Jefferson, which lies in a valley between Mount Jefferson and Paddy Mountain. I weaved through charming neighborhoods along a road that appears to be tunneled through a forest, but really the old town roads have been there for so long that they became embraced by the trees. There are more kinds of trees than I can recognize while driving, and I find that the green of the summer leaves is almost blinding as the trees seem to usher me toward the entrance of the park.

Entrance to Mount Jefferson SNA

A series of accessible overlooks as you wind up the mountain are truly breathtaking.  It was fun to stop on my way up the mountain to take in the vistas in different directions from Sunrise Overlook, Sunset Overlook, and Jefferson Overlook.  In some places, you can hike from one overlook to another via a narrow but well-maintained dirt trail.  The cool breeze and low light of the morning were breathtaking as I made my way up and up.

Sunset Overlook
Hiking trail between overlooks
Jefferson Overlook

As a state natural area, Mount Jefferson was protected by North Carolina to “preserve and protect scientific, aesthetic, or ecological value.” This means that most of the state’s natural areas have fewer facilities and therefore require less staff and maintenance. Mount Jefferson, which was formerly classified as a state park, is a bit of an exception, as it hosts spectacular, well-maintained trails, water access and bathroom facilities, abundant picnic sites, and a beautiful rustic shelter with a stone fireplace.

When I reached the parking and picnic areas that lead to the upper trails, I found the large shelter in the shade of the trees. It offered views of the valley below and of adjacent mountains and was expansive with several picnic tables and a beautiful view.  Open air picnic sites cascaded down the mountain toward the shelter, and I wished I had something more exciting to stop and enjoy there than trailmix and a bottle of water.

Shelter

As I made my way up to the ridgeline trail, I stopped in my tracks to look around. This place was different.  I’ve been on a lot of mountains, but here I felt like I was on another planet. The flora was woody and the undergrowth was sparse. The morning light bounced through the trees at a low angle that created a serene and dreamy atmosphere.  I thought, “if I were a skilled photographer I bet I could take some amazing photos right now.”  Hopefully at least one of these will do this place justice.

On the way up to the ridgeline

After a short hike up the Summit Trail, I joined the Rhododendron Trail. Particularly in early June, the trail very much lives up to its name with blooming rhododendrons everywhere you look. I learned from George the maintenance man that I just missed the pink lady slippers bloom, which I will try to catch next spring.

Rhododendrons along the trail
Rhododendron Trail along the ridgeline of Mount Jefferson

This path is considered “strenuous”, but I found it to be more moderate—a bit rocky and rolly (I believe that’s the technical term) in parts but often flat and smooth. A cool breeze across the ridge keeps you comfortable as you hike, and I don’t recall running in to a single insect (good for me, less so for entomologists) save some stunning butterflies. The ridgeline trail allows regular views of the valley below with multiple opportunities to creep to the edge of the trail for a stunning vista. Every step seems to be more beautiful than the last.

One of many vistas along the Rhododendron Trail

I came to a fork in the trail where I could go up to Luther Rock or down to the Lost Province Trail. Feeling torn, I sat on a bench at the fork and wrote for a while. I paused regularly to marvel at the steady cool breeze that seemed to defy the physics of fluid motion by making it deep into the trail despite the trees.

Fork in Rhododendron Trail to go up to Luther Rock or down to Lost Province Trail

Two families traveling together with young children caught up with me, their bubbling conversations in stark contrast with what had been a nearly silent solo hike. I overheard them chatting about their most loathed kids TV show (Calliou, which I’ve heard many times before) as they meandered along the trail, their daily lives woven in to their nature hike—their indoor and outdoor worlds colliding.

I finally decided to head up to Luther Rock, which turned out to be less than 50 yards up the trail. The families headed back down, leaving me to take photos and spend a luxurious amount of time lying on a bit of bare rock with thousands fewer feet between me and outer space than usual.  Words really can’t describe what I observed there, so I’ll just share the subsequent photos. As usual with the photos of a newbie photographer, these photos really don’t do this place justice.

From Luther Rock
From Luther Rock in another direction
From Luther Rock

I could have stayed all day.  I wanted to stay all day.  But alas, I had more parks to see in the area and did not want to run out of daylight.  I headed down the south side of the mountain on the return section of the Rhododendron Trail, home to a rare virgin forest of large northern red oaks that looked entirely different from the ridgeline portion of the trail. There were still plenty of rhododendrons to see on the way down, though.

I’m likin’ the lichen 🙂

I exited the trail a little bit winded and with a big grin.  I stopped to look back where the forest spit me out and thought longingly of all of the spots I must have missed this visit. Until next time, Mount Jefferson! You are an absolute joy.

Focus on flora from Luther Rock

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Katie Hall is the new Public Information Officer for North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation.  A life-long North Carolinian, Katie is on a mission to explore all the State Parks she has missed or hasn’t seen in a decade or more.  Her background is in environmental science, management and policy, communications and outreach. 

Parks and recreation authority approves park expansions, improvement projects

Land acquisition projects at eight existing and proposed state parks and natural areas and four capital projects were funded in whole or in part by the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund Authority on Friday, May 12 at a meeting at Carolina Beach State Park. The projects will be supported with a $5.2 million share of the trust fund designated for state parks. The allocation of this funding is contingent upon budget approval by the North Carolina General Assembly.

Land acquisition projects totaling $4 million include adding 151 acres to Eno River State Park, 212 acres to Grandfather Mountain State Park, 50 acres to Morrow Mountain State Park, 114 acres to Lake James State Park, and 236 acres to Hanging Rock State Park. Other projects include acquiring 1,790 acres to establish the proposed Black River State Park and an initial acquisition of 1,000 acres for the proposed Salmon Creek State Natural Area, which is located on a Bertie County site where artifacts that may be linked to the “Lost Colony” and 18 other identified archaeological sites were found.

The authority also approved $1.2 million in funding for much-needed capital improvement projects including sand relocation in Jockeys Ridge State Park, dock replacement at Hammocks Beach State Park, design for restaurant renovations at Mount Mitchell State Park, and HVAC replacement at Fort Macon State Park.

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.

At the May 12 meeting, Secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Natural and Cultural Resources Susi Hamilton got to know to authority members and spoke of her deep appreciation for the work of DNCR’s divisions, which manage and support state parks, historic sites, art, science, and history museums, the N.C. Zoo, the N.C. Symphony, and much more. Division of Parks and Recreation Director Mike Murphy updated authority members on park visitation, the successful NC Science Festival, stream restoration projects and prescribed fire success in the parks. He also shared the progress of the exciting new 100 Mile Challenge and Passport programs and provided legislative updates.