By Wendy Byerly Wood
Not only will the National Park Service be celebrating 100 years in 2016, so will the North Carolina State Park system.
Just a week ago, Governor Pat McCrory was at Stone Mountain State Park ceremonial signing a bill that was passed by the Legislature to take a $2 billion bond referendum to voters in March 2016, and much of that bond funding will be for projects at a number of state parks.
Mike Murphy, director of the North Carolina State Parks, visited Elkin Wednesday morning to share the story of the state parks with the Yadkin Valley Rotary Club during its weekly meeting at Fairfield Inn.
Murphy was named director in 2014 and part of his role includes preparing the state parks for the centennial celebration in 2016.
“The bond issue is the name of the game right now,” said Murphy as he opened his presentation to the Rotary members. “North Carolinians love being outdoors.”
He said the state’s constitution reads that the function of government is to preserve North Carolina’s “openlands and places of beauty.”
“We are the envy of other states,” Murphy said. “We feel proud and lucky to have the state parks we have.”
North Carolina’s system includes 35 state parks, four state recreation areas, seven state lakes and five state trails. The state manages about 226,000 acres, he said, which is the size of a medium county.
In 2014, according to Murphy, visits to North Carolina’s state parks totaled more than 15.5 million people. Based on a graph comparing the increase in the state’s population to the increase in state park visitors, it is estimated by 2040 visitors to the parks could reach 20 million. Visits to Stone Mountain alone increase 18 percent in 2014 over 2013, he said, with about 400,000 visitors.
Murphy reported in 2014, volunteers, like trail groups and Friends of Parks groups, logged more than 74,000 volunteer hours in state parks. “That’s the equivalent of $1.7 million that would have been out of the bottom line, because if we didn’t have volunteers, we’d have to be doing the work they do,” he said.
The conservation community has supported the state park system as well, Murphy said, with either cash or property to the tune of about $2 million per year since 1994.
Recently, the state realigned its resources moving the state parks into the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, which includes other state resources such as the NC Zoo, aquariums, transportation museum, historical resources, history museum, state historic sites and more.
“Our mission has three parts — conservation, recreation and education,” said Murphy of the Division of Parks and Recreation, which includes the state parks. “We are a basic part of the state infrastructure because we improve the quality of life in North Carolina; just like Bill [Blackley] and the trail groups in Elkin improve the quality of life in Elkin.
“We support tourism and the economy, especially in more rural areas. We support the schools and universities,” he said.
The recently passed state budget included an increase in funding to the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, which supplies money for capital needs to the state parks, local parks and coastal access. The funding will total $13.2 million, which is still a decreased amount from previous years such as 2013 when it was $27.8 million or 2011 when it was $24.1 million.
Each year the state parks add about 4,000 to 5,000 acres, Murphy said. And it employs more than 1,000 people both permanent and seasonal.
In addition to open land, there are buildings to maintain, such as visitors centers, restrooms, cabins and more. Much of the funding from PARTF has been spent on repairs and maintenance of sewer systems, roads and parking lots.
In order to meet many of the structural and recreational needs within the state park system, the governor initiated the Connect NC bond project in April. “We can borrow the money at very low interest rates,” Murphy said of the funding if it is approved by voters March 15, 2016.
Of the $2 billion bond, $75 million of that would be used for 45 projects in the state parks, including projects at Stone Mountain, Pilot Mountain, Hanging Rock and the New River Trail state parks. Also, $4.5 million will be used on the Mountains to Sea Trail for the purchase of additional land and easements to continue its path.
As far as the history of the North Carolina State Parks, Murphy shared that North Carolina had the first state park in the southeastern United States with the formation of a state park for Mount Mitchell. It was initiated by citizens who were concerned about the logging of highest peak east of the Mississippi River.
The 2016 celebration will include public service announcements, a video produced about each of the state parks, and a one-hour special on UNC-TV produced by Tom Earnhardt of “Exploring North Carolina.” Also, events at each state park will include centennial celebrations, like “an enhanced old fashion day” on Sept. 10, 2016, at Stone Mountain.
Murphy said major events for the centennial will be held at Mount Mitchell and Fort Macon, which was the first state park actually visited by people, with others possible. There will be a 100-mile hiking challenge, and the creation of a parks passport which can be taken to all the parks and stamped.
North Carolina’s Eno River State Park was the first place to host First Day Hikes, which are held on Jan. 1, and it now is a nationwide program. Other centennial plans include the sale of centennial merchandise, a hall of fame and the participation of the Parks Color Guard at events throughout the state.
Following Murphy’s presentation, Rotarian Jed Metts, who moved to the state about 22 years ago from Florida, commended North Carolina’s legislators and state officials for providing access to the state parks for free. This is not the case in some states.
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.