‘Take a Spin’ this year to learn about spiders in state parks

Why spiders?

For several years, North Carolina State Parks has had an annual theme for many of its interpretive programs to systematically explore the natural world. And, the theme is celebrated with a special bandana. This year’s theme is “Spiders!”

bandana-proofAlthough some will find this theme to be downright creepy, there is so much about spiders that makes them fascinating. Did you know that all spiders spin silk, but not all spiders spin webs. Wolf spiders leave “drag lines” behind when they walk as a way to communicate and find a mate. Trapdoor spiders dig burrows and cover them with doors of soil and silk, then swing the door open to grab prey. To keep from getting stuck in their silk, special oils cover spiders’ bodies, and their hairy feet often have special web-walking hooks.

Spiders are a valuable food source for many small mammals, birds, and fish. In fact, they are vital to maintaining healthy ecosystems by eating insect pests, by pollinating plants and by recycling dead animals and plants back into the earth. Spiders eat more insects than birds and bats combined. There’s even a species of spider in Central America that’s a vegetarian.

funnel-webDespite their nasty reputation, spiders are just as cool and important to the ecosystems of North Carolina State Parks as any other animals. The spruce-fir moss spider, one of the few federally endangered spiders, is known to live only in high elevation forests like those on Mount Mitchell and Grandfather Mountain. With hundreds of spider species in North Carolina – and dozens yet to be discovered – these amazing arachnids are among the most diverse animals around. It is our hope this year to help others ‘take a spin’ to see just how cool spiders can be!

NC state parks had record visitation of 18.8 million in Centennial year.

In its 2016 Centennial year, North Carolina State Parks enjoyed record visitation of 18.8 million, a nine percent increase over the 17.3 million visitors the previous year.

“North Carolina’s state parks are a treasured resource that belongs to all of us,” Governor Roy Cooper said. “I want to encourage even more North Carolinians to visit and enjoy our wonderful state parks.”

Among 39 state parks and state recreation areas, 31 reported increases in visitation in 2016. William B. Umstead State Park in Wake County reported the highest visitation at 1.84 million, a 38 percent increase over 2015, 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.

“Our Centennial year in 2016 was a time of celebration and reconnection with state parks, and record visitation suggests that North Carolinians participated fully,” said Mike Murphy, state parks director. “Visitors have come to rely on the state parks as a valuable resource for recreation, conservation and education.”

A Centennial event at Hanging Rock State Park drew hundreds of visitors.

Visitation at state parks and state recreation areas has increased more than 49 percent in the past 10 years. In 2006, 12.6 million people visited state park units.

During the system’s Centennial year, North Carolina State Parks initiated its passport program, where prizes can be earned for visiting at least 10 state parks, and 100-Mile Challenge in partnership with Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, which promotes a healthy, active lifestyle.

The state parks system achieved the record attendance despite closings due to Hurricane Matthew in early October and wildfires in western parks a month later. In the aftermath of the hurricane, 25 state parks were at least temporarily closed, and in November eight state parks were closed to allow personnel to help contain wildfires at Chimney Rock and South Mountains state parks.

State parks reporting significant increases in visitation included Pilot Mountain State Park in Surry County (51 percent), Pettigrew State Park in Washington/Tyrell counties (38 percent), Lake Norman State Park in Iredell County (24 percent) and Mount Mitchell State Park in Yancey County (26 percent).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.