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Proposed Northern Peaks Trail May Threaten Biodiversity in Western NC Depending on Route

By Dominick Ferrara, Reporting by Katherine Ozturk

Western North Carolina is famous for its mountains and its biodiversity. Its beautiful views and rare plants draw tourists. 

Now, a proposed state trail designed to draw more tourists could endanger plants that are an important part of the ecosystem.

The Northern Peaks Trail would be a 40-mile-long corridor that connects Boone and two state parks — Elk Knob and Mount Jefferson. The trail’s master plan estimates that the trail could generate $2.5 million in annual economic impact from visitors, said Wright Tilley, executive director of the Watauga County Tourism Development Authority.

“Leaders in both Watauga and Ashe continue to hear from residents and visitors that they want public access to outdoor recreation areas, specifically hiking trails and river access,” Tilley wrote in an email.

But some people are concerned that the trail could run through the habitats of rare plants, threatening the biodiversity that would make it a tourist destination in the first place. A final location has yet to be determined.

Dr. Matt Estep, an assistant professor at Appalachian State University, said that developing the trail is feasible, but stressed the need for sustainability, even if it’s expensive. A 2017 proposal said that the trail would cost more than $4 million.

“I’m a big fan of trails, in general, outdoor recreation is something I enjoy as well as everybody else,” Estep said. “But I do get very upset when I see lands that were purchased for plant conservation and then they get transitioned into recreational properties. I don’t mind recreation on those lands, but they need to prioritize the plants if they’re going to do it.” 

In stressing the importance of biodiversity, Estep made a comparison to the value of diversity in society.

“It’s the same kind of value system that you can attach to individual diversity,” he said. “You look across our country and diversity is a valuable thing. It allows us to adapt to changes in the world around us. The more diversity we have, I would argue the better, whether that’s genetic diversity, whether that’s individual diversity, or biodiversity, just I think diversity really does have value for us.”

The planning of the trail is in the hands of the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation, a government agency, and the Blue Ridge Conservancy, a non-profit organization which protects land in western North Carolina. Estep has concerns with State Parks’ involvement.

“State Parks are not trying to make money, but they want to limit their resource allocation,” Estep wrote in an email. “Under the Republican administration, State Parks focuses heavily on recreation access (appropriate), but they ignore their duties around biodiversity protection.”

Dave Head, planning program manager for the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation, disagrees with the idea that the state ignores biodiversity protection. In an email, Head cited the work of the state’s full-time natural resources team, including rare species monitoring and management, and natural resource management training for park staff as evidence of the state’s conservation efforts.

“We agree with Dr. Estep that we are pushing ahead to improve access for recreation,” Head said. “However, as one of the three pillars of our mission, conservation has been and remains a high priority.”  

Trail proponents say they are committed to protecting the area’s biodiversity.

“I think everyone associated with this trail concept is committed to developing this trail in an environmentally responsible manner, while also providing the public access that people want,” Tilley said.

If Charlie Brady, executive director of the Blue Ridge Conservancy, has his way, the trail’s final location will avoid rare plant habitats altogether.

“We’re not going to do anything, in any way that is going to impact those rare and endangered plant communities,” Brady said. “It’s just ingrained in who we are.”

The next steps are heavily dependent on a Natural Heritage Program study that has not been conducted. The goal of the study is to find an alignment that will not threaten endangered or rare plant communities. 

In the most recent state budget proposal, $50,000 was appropriated to pay for that study. Until that budget is approved, the trail’s location will not be set.

If the trail is built close to rare plant habitats, signs can be put up to warn people not to go off-trail. However, signage doesn’t prevent people from endangering plant communities, according to a study conducted by the U.S. Forest Service. 

The study found that even with signage and fences, an average of two people every day violated the closure order, which led to a decline of the plant population.

“The thing about signs is that people just ignore them,” Head said. “Our educational folks do a wonderful job of putting these things together, but there’s only so much you can do to get somebody to learn about it.”

Signage can also point poachers toward rare plants.

“Those rare plants are worth money, and there is a black market for them,” Estep said. “There’s a lot of blue-haired old ladies who would love to have spreading avens in their garden. And I am not kidding.”

Both State Parks and Blue Ridge Conservancy are working to develop educational plans for the trail.

“I feel that it really is an opportunity once it’s built with not just signage, but different components of education to the public about why this area is so special and why it’s so sensitive,” Brady said. “So that one, it will help minimize the number of people that might go off trail, or do things that could be harmful to it.”

However, since the trail has been proposed as a tourist destination, it may be more difficult to reach new visitors with educational programs, especially compared to those who regularly visit other trails and parks.

“It’s a hard nut to crack,” Rebekah Reid, section seven coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said. “A lot of times, we’re dealing with the one-time user, from out of state on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. They’re going to go out and they’re going to visit all these great spots, and then they’re going to go home. Those are a really hard demographic to connect with.”

To explain why reaching such audiences is important, Estep cited a study by Dale Suiter, biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which measured visitors’ environmental impact on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

“Five percent of the people were bad actors,” Estep said. “Five percent was enough to do a lot of damage.”