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Federal money coming to WNC public lands

Visitation has surged at Black Balsam in recent years, with the trail full of backpackers and retreating day hikers as sunset approached Saturday, Oct. 3. Holly Kays photo Visitation has surged at Black Balsam in recent years, with the trail full of backpackers and retreating day hikers as sunset approached Saturday, Oct. 3. Holly Kays photo

Public lands in Western North Carolina are set to get a chunk of the $950 billion approved for deferred maintenance projects with the Aug. 4 ratification of the Great American Outdoors Act. The National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service both released project lists last week. 

Hailed as the largest single investment in public lands in the nation’s history, the bipartisan act dedicates up to $9.5 billion over five years to address the much larger maintenance backlog on federal lands, as well as $900 million per year to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has for the past 50 years protected land for parks, wildlife refuges and recreation nationwide. The law requires that half of the money received from energy development revenues on federal lands and waters go toward these programs, not to exceed $1.9 billion in any fiscal year. 

Nationwide, the Forest Service has a deferred maintenance backlog of $5.2 million, while the Park Service’s stands at $12 billion. As of 2018, the last year for which figures are available, the backlog in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was worth $235.9 million, and the Blue Ridge Parkway carried a backlog of $508.1 million. 

The funds will go to agencies under both the Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture, each of which is handling the process of prioritizing and carrying out the projects in a different way.

 

U.S. Forest Service

The Forest Service, seated under the Department of Agriculture, is seeking public feedback on the projects it’s proposing before issuing final approval of the project lists. It will use the funds to focus on efforts to improve forest conditions and increase forest resiliency for present and future generations. 

Projects in the Forest Service’s southern region were chosen based on seven criteria: reducing deferred maintenance, promoting management of America’s forests, improving visitor experience, contributing to rural economic development, improving visitor access, ensuring health and safety and leveraging partner contributions and resources. 

More than 90 projects are proposed for the National Forests in North Carolina, with a complete list available at bit.ly/USFSprojects. Some of the highlights are:

  • A major rehabilitation of the Cradle of Forestry in America National Historic Area would include restoring six chimneys at four historic buildings, rebuilding an historic sawmill, interpretive master plan and exhibit improvements, trail resurfacing, finishing amphitheater wings, HVAC upgrades and pond enhancement.
  • The entire 31-mile Art Loeb Trail, which runs between Bethel and Brevard, would receive much-needed maintenance. Other proposed trail maintenance projects include the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Loop, Slickrock Creek Trail, Deep Creek Trail, Blackburn Trail, Leatherwood Loop Trail, Daniel Ridge Trail, Flat Laurel Creek Trail, Buckhorn Gap Trail, Sam Knot Trail, Courthouse Falls Trail and Rim Trail. 
  • Tsali and Jackrabbit Mountain campgrounds would be rehabilitated. At Tsali, this would include complete renovation of 38 camping units and addressing site slope, drainage issues, rotting timbers and outdated amenities, with a road widening and repaving proposed as well. At Jackrabbit, 70 campsites would be rehabilitated, the group pavilion replaced, the dump station sewer line replaced, and new eight-unit bathhouse with accessible pathways built. 
  • A proposed renovation at the Pink Beds Picnic Area would decommission the existing pavilion, replace the bathroom in place of the old pavilion, construct accessible pathways and update picnic area amenities and signage. 
  • Extreme use at Black Balsam Trailhead is spurring a proposal to replace the undersized vault toilet, expand the parking lot by 75 percent and reconfigure parking to improve traffic flow and mitigate unsafe conditions. 
  • A major rehabilitation at the Standing Indian Recreation Area in Franklin would replace the plumbing fixtures in five bathhouses, rehabilitate 84 campsites and three group sites, remodel the concession office, replace three road bridges, repave eight loops, replace the amphitheater seats and floor and replace minor construction features. 
  • The Pisgah District Office would receive much-needed rehabilitation work, and renovations would commence at the Nantahala Administrative Site and Grandfather District Ranger Office. 
  • Frying Pan Tower’s stairs would be removed and a fence constructed. 

The Forest Service is accepting public comment on the proposals through Monday, Nov. 30, in an attempt to gauge public opinion. Specific projects will be announced and noticed for a formal public comment period as required by law. 

To learn more, view the complete project list or submit a comment, visit https://cara.ecosystem-management.org/public/commentinput?project=np-2651.

 

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Major rehabilitation projects for the Cradle of Forestry in America are proposed in the U.S. Forest Service’s plan. Margaret Hester photo

 

National parks

The U.S. Department of the Interior, under which the Park Service falls, created the Great American Outdoors Act Coordination and Implementation Task Force to determine which projects should receive funding.

In Secretary’s Order 3388, DOI Secretary David Bernhardt said that the awards must prioritize investments that increase public access for recreation, enhance conservation and support recovery of endangered species; increase flexibility for how states and local communities spend and match LWCF grants, and give states and communities a voice in federal land acquisitions. 

The order garnered criticism from environmental groups, who said the policy would add bureaucracy and restrictions to dispersal of the funds, and that the guidelines would not allow for the Park Service’s backlog to be adequately addressed. 

According to a press release from the DOI, a team of “career employees” who are “technical experts in facility management, construction, budget and related fields” spent multiple weeks reviewing proposed projects and thinning the list to deliver final recommendations for approval from Bernhardt and the task force. 

“The team narrowed the list down to projects that would have the greatest overall impact on reducing the agencies’ maintenance backlogs while also benefiting the American people,” the press release said. 

For fiscal year 2021, the Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will leverage more than $125 million for 46 different conservation projects as funded through the LWCF. Approximately $1.6 billion will be invested into more than 160 deferred maintenance projects, benefiting a majority of states and numerous Bureau of Indian Education schools. 

Projects approved for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are: 

  • Rehabilitation of 17 miles of the Foothills Parkway in Tennessee. This would include a full depth reclamation or complete mill and overlay of the road section. 
  • Replacement of the maintenance facilities at Sugarlands in Tennessee. The project would address deferred maintenance on multiple park buildings and supporting infrastructure. 

Projects approved for the Blue Ridge Parkway’s North Carolina miles are:

  • Replace the existing Laurel Fork Bridge in Ashe County, built in 1939. 
  • Rehabilitate and reconstruct 75.5 miles of the Parkway in North Carolina between Stone Mountain and Grandfather Mountain State parks as well as associated overlooks, ramps and park areas. 

The only LWCF project approved for fiscal year 2021 in North Carolina is $1 million to purchase 8,263 acres to connect the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and the Pocasin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in the eastern part of the state. 

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