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The Daily Tar Heel

N.C. state parks balance increase in visitors with environmental concerns

Durham residents Makayla Perry (8) and Beth Revueltas (36) wade in Eno River along Fanny's Ford Trails in Hillsborough on Monday, Sept. 30, 2019.

Over 20 million people visited N.C. state parks in 2023 — a 4 percent increase from the previous year, according to the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation.

Kris Anne Bonifacio, the public information officer for the NCDPR, said the increase can be partially attributed to a law passed in August 2021 designating 2023 as the Year of the Trail. This law said the state would invest in and encourage the use of local trails throughout the state.

Bonifacio said another factor that could have caused the increase in visitors was the completion of many bond projects, such as a new visitor center and improved campgrounds.

Some of the most popular parks of the year include Jordan Lake State Recreation Area, which broke the record for visitation to a single park unit, as well as Falls Lake, Fort Fisher and Kerr Lake state recreation areas.

 Gabbie Romano, who started using state parks more in 2021 during a semester off from UNC, is working on completing the state park passport program, which allows visitors to track their visits to state parks. She said that although visiting state parks is a great way for North Carolinians to see what the state has to offer, the increased visitor count comes with negative impacts as well.

“Sometimes people don't treat the parks as well as they should," Romano said. "So I do notice trash sometimes on the sides of trails and stuff like that, which can be disappointing.”

Romano said new visitors not treating the parks with respect could have a large impact on the environment.

“Something that I'm always concerned about is the impact it has on wildlife, because when people start throwing their trash and stuff like that on the trails, wildlife will start becoming food habituated and associate people and trails with food,” Romano said. 

Bonifacio said parks sometimes have to turn visitors away because of full parking areas and overcrowding.

Eno River State Park Ranger Lawson Osteen said the best time to visit the parks to avoid large crowds and possible parking issues is either early in the morning or later in the evening, as parks get most busy around lunchtime and the middle of the day.

Conservation is important to state parks, and the increase in visitors comes with a need to be more aware of staffing needs and the protection of plants and animals, Bonifacio said.

Osteen said Eno River State Park actively tries to educate the public on Leave No Trace, a set of principles for visiting natural areas, and other aspects of the park by hosting programs about park history and making information widely available.

“It's definitely a balancing act, in terms of making sure that people are still having a good time and can access the parks, but also, we want to make sure that the larger amounts of people that are coming to our parks are not negatively affecting the natural resources,” Bonifacio said.

@DTHCityState |

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