Archived Outdoors

A year in outdoors

Cars parked along the road near Laurel Falls Trailhead damage the vegetation trying to grow there. NPS photo Cars parked along the road near Laurel Falls Trailhead damage the vegetation trying to grow there. NPS photo

From new parks to big birthdays to policy overhauls, 2022 has been a year of change and major milestones for the outdoors in Western North Carolina. Here’s my best stab at outlining some of the biggest news to enter the region’s outdoor world this year.

Parking at a price 

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park overturned decades of precedent when it announced a proposal in April to start charging visitors for parking. The new rules, which received official approval in August, set the price at $5 per day, $15 per week or $40 per year. The proposal was the subject of intense debate, with the park receiving 15,512 comments on the parking tag program and other fee increases. Many area residents think of the Smokies as their own local park, and because the terms of a 1951 deed transfer in combination with a 1992 federal law mean the park can’t charge an entrance fee, they had understood it would remain free to use forever. However, proponents of the fee say that park use has increased too sharply and with too little funding from the federal government for the Smokies to sustain its operations without the parking tag program. The new fees will become effective in March. The park is also taking measures against rampant roadside parking at popular trailhead areas, and those efforts have already begun.

Future of the Pisgah-Nantahala 

Ten years ago, the U.S. Forest Service started meeting with stakeholders to discuss a monumental effort to revise the forest management plan for the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests. After dozens of meetings, multiple rounds of public comment and robust public debate, the Forest Service has released its final plan — almost. The plan, published in January, laid out the framework for management decisions on the 1-million-acre forest for the next two decades, but it also gave the public a chance to object before the new plan went into effect. And object they did. The Forest Service accepted 891 objections as meeting its criteria to participate in objection resolution meetings, which were held in August. Deputy Regional Forester Rick Lint is charged with crafting a written response to these objections, which may include instructions for changes in the final plan. Forest Supervisor James Melonas was expected to sign the plan into effect — with any required changes — this fall. As of press time, it looks like the final answer for the future of the Pisgah-Nantahala will wait until 2023. 

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Coche Tiger tells the Cherokee legend of the evergreen trees during the Nov. 2 harvesting ceremony as EBCI Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources Joey Owle looks on. James Edward Mills/Choose Outdoors photo 

Lighting up the Capitol 

Each year, one of the country’s national forests supplies the towering tree that serves as a national symbol of celebration on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. For the first time since 1998 — and the third time in history — that tree comes from the Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest. Specifically, from Haywood County. “Ruby,” a 78-foot red spruce harvested from the forest along N.C. 215, just before its intersection with the Blue Ridge Parkway, was cut down in a ceremony Wednesday, Nov. 2, and went on a tour covering much of the state before ending up in Washington, D.C., for the lighting ceremony Tuesday, Nov. 29. Coche Tiger, a fourth grader at New Kituwah Academy in Cherokee and a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, did the honors, also telling the Cherokee legend of the evergreen tree on national TV. Before she traveled north, Ruby’s cones were harvested and delivered to the Southern Highlands Reserve in Lake Toxaway, which will grow them into hundreds of red spruce seedlings to be replanted on the forest landscape. When Christmas is over, Ruby’s wood will be used to make musical instruments. 

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Today, more than 7,000 black bears are estimated to live in Western North Carolina. Bill Lea photo

Debate over bear sanctuaries 

When the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission proposed allowing limited hunting in bear sanctuaries, people turned out in force to oppose the measure. The Wildlife Commission said more hunting pressure was needed to curb the growth rate of the mountain bear population, which sits above 7,000 and is growing at an estimated 6% annually. The proposal stemmed from the U.S. Forest Service’s 2018 request to allow hunting in Panthertown Valley to reduce human-bear conflicts. However, of the 2,744 people who weighed in on the proposal, 86% opposed it, saying that education, not hunting, is the solution to reducing conflict. Though the Wildlife Commission voted unanimously to approve the rule anyway, the N.C. Rules Review Commission rejected it, saying it was unclear and ambiguous. While a revised version of the rule was later approved, it had already been flagged for legislative review due to the number of people who wrote the RRC requesting such a review. When the N.C. General Assembly convenes in January, legislators will have 31 days to introduce a bill disapproving the rule, which cannot go into effect until any such bill is defeated or until the General Assembly adjourns without ratifying it. 

New trails abound 

Spring kicked off with the much-anticipated opening of the Chestnut Mountain Nature Park in Canton April 22. The first phase of development on the 450-acre property features the mountain biking skills course Berm Park, which offers five trails of varying difficulties, as well as a 0.6-mile hiking trail that climbs 350 feet to Berm Park and what will be the trailhead for more hiking and biking opportunities. A pedestrian bridge greets visitors at the parking lot off U.S. 23. The opening ceremony was a big deal, but less than a month later outdoor enthusiasts had something new to celebrate — the Fire Mountain Disc Golf Sanctuary in Cherokee. The 18-hole, championship-caliber course sits on 31 acres between Cherokee Central Schools and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In addition to enjoying the lofty canopy and mountain creek, players learn about the Cherokee culture while tossing discs. Each hole is named for an animal, historical figure or legendary entity, with signs at each tee pad describing the namesake’s role in Cherokee folklore and rendering its name in the Cherokee language. Trail lovers should watch out for more new opportunities in 2024. Also in Cherokee, plans for an expansion to the Fire Mountain trail system are underway, and the tribe continues to collaborate with the Town of Sylva on what are expected to be the highest trails open to mountain bikers east of the Mississippi River. 

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Rafters splash through a rapid on a blue-skied day. NOC photo

Happy birthday, dear everybody 

This year was a milestone for a variety of organizations whose work has a big impact on the outdoors in Western North Carolina. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission turned 75, while the Nantahala Outdoor Center turned 50. September marked 45 years since the concept for the Mountains-to-Sea Trail was first proposed during the National Trails Symposium at Lake Junaluska, MountainTrue turned 40 and the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation celebrated 25 years of supporting the National Park Service mission on the Blue Ridge Parkway. 

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