Other voices: Help state parks by supporting NC Connect

Published 7:14 am Saturday, February 27, 2016

Like the national parks, North Carolina’s state parks have unmet needs. In this case, however, the answer is close at hand.

Much attention has been focused on the $1.3 billion for higher-education construction contained in Gov. Pat McCrory’s $2 billion Connect NC bond issue. And rightly so. The needs are critical and worsening day by day.

But there are other beneficiaries of the bonds, and one of them is the state park system. The program includes $75 million for the parks, including improvement and expansion projects at all five parks in Western North Carolina: Chimney Rock, Gorges, Grandfather Mountain, Lake James and Mount Mitchell – as well as Yellow Mountain State Natural Area.

Lake James State Park in McDowell and Burke counties stands to benefit most among park projects included in the bond proposal. An estimated $3 million would pay for a visitor center. Gorges State Park in Transylvania County would get $2.5 million for a campground.

Yellow Mountain, in Mitchell and Avery counties, would get $2.25 million to add land. Chimney Rock, in Rutherford County, would get $1.5 million for land and improvements. Grandfather Mountain, in Avery County, would get $1.5 million for various improvements. Mount Mitchell, in Yancey County, would get $600,000 for restroom and disposal upgrades.

“Our future visitor center will be able to house all of our staff and more exhibit space, multipurpose rooms and a larger retail space,” said Lake James Superintendent Nora Coffey.

“We really need a tent site campground,” said Gorges Superintendent Steve Pagano. “We get a lot of requests for it. There’s not a lot of camping in our neck of the woods. We end up sending people to Devils Fork or Caesars Head (state parks) in South Carolina. We’d rather keep them here in Transylvania County.”

“We have a wish list and an idea of what property owners might be willing to sell,” Charlie Peek, spokesman for N.C. State Parks, said of Yellow Mountain. “This is an area of high elevation, grassy balds, spectacular from a scenic point of view.

“It could conceivably become a park, but the real driving force is for conservation — we want to protect it,” Peek said. “It can develop public facilities, such as trails and picnic areas, without becoming a park.”

It is appropriate that the bond program comes as both the state and national parks systems are celebrating their centennial though, as Peek points out, “The timing had more to do with the ability to borrow money at lower interest rates.” Nevertheless, “it’s coming at a good time for the state parks,” he added.

North Carolina’s state parks are more important today than they ever have been. The system had a record attendance of 17.3 million in 2015, up from 15.6 million the previous year, according to the Division of Parks and Recreation.

Gorges had 158,648 visitors in 2015, a 48 percent increase from 107,254 in 2014. This underscores the need for facilities to accommodate the ever-growing visitation.

Grandfather Mountain State had a 30 percent increase to 94,597, compared to 72,926 in 2014; Chimney Rock had 261,177 visitors, a 5 percent increase; and Mount Mitchell had 315,979 visitors in 2015, up 12 percent.

The big day for the parks is March 15. That’s when North Carolina voters decide whether to issue the bonds.

They should approve.

— The Asheville Citizen-Times


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