On a sunny July day in western Caldwell County, Yolanda Hernandez is skillfully searing carne asada, Spanish for “grilled meat,” and chorizo, or pork sausage, on a charcoal grill in a shaded grassy area by the Wilson Creek Wild and Scenic River. Hernandez, originally from Pueblo, Mexico, is now living in Charlotte with her husband, Carlos, a construction worker.
As she turns the sizzling meat, the aroma fills the air around her, and Carlos is eager to chat. He switches between Spanish and English while fanning smoke with his hand from the grill.
“I like the community,” he said. “We come three, maybe four times a year. This is a special place for us.” Several “tweenage” kids are shivering in wet bathing suits in camp chairs sipping ice-cold Pepsis, a paper plate in their laps.
Like many, Yolanda and Carlos have embraced this area because of its easy access, natural beauty and refreshing swimming holes.
On this Sunday, dozens of cookouts are scattered between the gravel road and the riverbank along several miles of lower Wilson Creek that include a patchwork of privately owned and public land. Many of the visitors — with origins in Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico and Honduras — live within about an hour’s drive of the river in Charlotte, Gastonia, Lenoir, Morganton and other parts of the Piedmont.
The 23-mile stream that flows from Grandfather Mountain is surrounded by thousands of acres of wilderness, attracting a wide range of outdoor enthusiasts: campers, climbers, kayakers, fishermen, hikers, horseback riders and mountain bikers. It has gone from a thriving timber town in the early part of the 20th century to a year-round spot for nature lovers, largely due to the spike in Latino visitors since the pandemic, local leaders say.
The apparent connection to the outdoors among Latinos doesn’t surprise Juvencio Rocha Peralta, executive director of the Association of Mexicans in North Carolina, or AMEXCAN. Originally from Vera Cruz, Mexico, Rocha Peralta said that outdoor spaces are culturally important to many in the Latino community.
“When we come to a new community, we are looking for those outdoor opportunities,” he said. “It’s important to recognize that, for Latinos in general, spending time in the outdoors has always been an important cultural activity.”
On a national level, communities of color tend to visit public lands less frequently than white visitors, government data shows. But at Wilson Creek, the recreational spots have drawn large crowds of mainly Latino visitors since the pandemic. It is a trend that happens to align with a U.S. Forest Service goal to attract a greater variety of people, not just more visitors. The agency plans to build relationships with different groups to welcome all visitors and connect local communities with the national forest. The goal is to involve all types of people and communities, especially those who haven’t had much involvement before, to ensure the forest is enjoyed by a diverse group that reflects the local and national population.
For some, the growing number of Latino visitors at Wilson Creek is a welcome trend. However, the crowds have also resulted in complaints about traffic and litter. Now, local leaders are focused on how to manage these challenges in partnership with the Latino community.
Attracting communities of color
The Forest Service has expressed a desire to attract what is referred to in the plan as historically underserved populations and other nontraditional visitors to Western North Carolina, as stated in the Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest land management plan finalized last February. The 2022 Forest Service Equity Action Plan said that “that individuals and communities of color and other socially vulnerable populations face unique barriers and participate less in recreation and outdoor experiences on National Forest System lands.”
Lisa Jennings, the U.S. Forest Service’s recreation manager of the Grandfather Ranger District in Pisgah National Forest, said that the future of Wilson Creek depends on engaging with visitors to the area.
“That’s the Latinx community,” she said. “What really gets me excited is that we have a really unique opportunity to bring them into the planning process and to design improvements for the future.”
On July 4, among the busiest summer weekends on Wilson Creek, Sandra Aguirre, co-founder of Latinos Aventureros en las Carolinas, was handing out garbage bags to visitors and encouraging visitors to pack out trash or leave in dumpsters. The organization is dedicated to increasing BIPOC — Black, Indigenous and people of color — participation in the outdoors.
The single mother of three who works as a legal assistant, moved from Honduras to Morganton with her mother 28 years ago, following her father’s death when she was 7. While Morganton now has a thriving Hispanic community, when she moved, there were few Latinos.
Since 2010, the Latino/Hispanic population in North Carolina has increased by 39.8% according to Carolina Demography.
“The only place [my mother] was able to take us was Wilson Creek. So, I pretty much grew up there,” she said. “Every summer, every afternoon, my mom would take us there.”
The outdoors have become a central part of her existence. She said proudly that she and her children have visited over 300 waterfalls, and Latinos Aventureros has over 3,000 members on their Facebook pages.
Aguirre’s ability to communicate directly with recreational users, especially Latinos, is crucial, said Wes Waugh, who leads A Clean Wilson Creek, a nonprofit organization, and is a longtime resident of North Carolina’s High Country. “Having Sandra is a godsend. The rapport that Sandra creates is positive but demands respect.”
Aguirre’s group of Latino outdoor enthusiasts reflects the changing demographics of visitors to public land spaces, such as national forests and parks, but it is not the norm. Nationally, only 6.7% of visitors to U.S. national forests are Hispanic, Latino or Spanish, while more than 90% are white, according to Forest Service data. In the recreation areas of North Carolina’s Nantahala-Pisgah National Forests, Hispanics and Latinos were the most commonly encountered (4%) racial and ethnic minorities, according to a 2018 visitor report.
Aguirre’s motivation for establishing Latinos Aventureros was to bring more Latinos outside.
“When I started hiking and ran into an obstacle, I didn’t know where to find the right information,” she said, adding that obtaining information was compounded by language and cultural differences. “I didn’t see people that looked like me. I questioned that often.”
Her current objective, she said, is to unite Latino families and communities in outdoor settings, with a particular focus on accessible locations like Wilson Creek.
“I want people to see that they can enjoy time outdoors and spend time with their families doing something different,” Aguirre said. “The outdoors gives everybody the possibility and the opportunity to not just do something beneficial for their bodies, but actually for their mental health, too.”
Aguirre remembers that littering and stewardship issues were prevalent when she first began visiting Wilson Creek many years ago. She attributes her commitment to picking up and maintaining the area to her mother, who instilled in her a strong sense of responsibility.
“I remember my mom always asking us to pick up trash,” she said.
The problem in Wilson Creek, from Aguirre’s point of view, was the lack of information and availability of trash bags, trash cans or messaging. Visitors, she said, often come unprepared to deal with the trash they generate at a picnic.
“The last thing most people think of is taking trash bags for a cookout at Wilson Creek,” she said.
Inspiring environmental stewardship
Both Jennings, the Forest Service official, and Waugh said that Aguirre’s presence on busy weekends has helped establish an environmental stewardship ethic that’s made a difference in Wilson Creek.
Environmental stewardship is the responsible and sustainable management and use of natural resources and ecosystems to ensure their long-term health. Stewardship involves decisions, conservation efforts and proactive measures to minimize negative impacts, such as pollution, habitat destruction and resource depletion while promoting practices that enhance ecological resilience and biodiversity.
“People see us, and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, you look like me. Can we talk?’ And I’m like, yes, absolutely,” she said. “That opens the opportunity for us to provide the right information and tell them that they’re welcome here anytime, but please pick up after yourselves.”
She is hopeful that Latinos Aventureros will be an important partner in the future management of Wilson Creek by not just sharing information but also providing a voice on behalf of the Latino community.
The Wilson Creek area has been a high-use portion of the forest for many years, particularly on weekends from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Jennings said.
Easy access to the forest is part of the draw. It can be an easy day trip for city dwellers looking for a tranquil escape. The river, camping opportunities and a complex network of hiking, horseback and mountain biking trails are relatively close to highly populated centers in Charlotte, Raleigh and the Interstate 40 corridor, Jennings said.
“When people go west to the mountains, the Grandfather Ranger District is what they touch first,” she said. One of three ranger districts in Pisgah National Forest, Grandfather spans 192,000 acres from Asheville to the forest’s northern edge near Boone. The 23-mile-long Wilson River cuts through private land and land managed by the U.S. Forest Service, Caldwell County and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
The headwaters of Wilson Creek are located near the Blue Ridge Parkway and is an “easy-to-reach mountain oasis in the Pisgah National Forest,” as described by the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Across North Carolina’s Nantahala-Pisgah forests, almost 50% of visits are from those living within 50 miles of the forest, based on visitor data.
In 2021, nearly 16 million visitors flocked to the Blue Ridge Parkway corridor, one of the most visited units of the National Park Service, according to Blue Ridge Rising, an initiative that promotes tourism in the rural mountain region
The pandemic also pushed more people to the outdoors. National park visitation rates increased among people of color living within 215 miles of the park during the pandemic, researchers wrote in the journal Scientific Reports.
Until there are more accessible green spaces to be enjoyed where people live, they will be drawn to places like Wilson Creek. “We have not kept up with the population growth to introduce the Latino population to outdoor activities where they live,” said Rocha Peralta of Greenville-based AMEXCAN.
Latino communities generally have less access to green space than non-Latinos, studies have found. In booming cities like Charlotte, a 95-mile drive from the community of Mortimer on Wilson Creek, green space and natural areas are disappearing. The N.C. League of Municipalities released a racial equity report in 2021 that called on cities and towns across the state to invest in parks and other infrastructure in historically neglected areas.
Several North Carolina cities will receive thousands of dollars in federal funding to plant more trees thanks to a grant from the Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry Grants program. Such efforts are intended to make communities greener and healthier.
“We have to make our natural resources more attractive and create welcoming opportunities and to create a space where you can have bilingual and bicultural personnel to meet the needs of the population,” Rocha Peralta said. The absence of signs in Spanish and personnel that speak their language can seem unwelcoming to Latino visitors.
“My message is that we have to change our lens and look at the trends of demographic changes happening in our communities,” he said. “Don’t wait. We have to be proactive.” His nonprofit promotes civic participation in Mexican and Latino communities.
In North Carolina counties where there are fewer public land opportunities, some parks and recreation departments proactively engage with the Latino community, including the growing migrant population, Rocha Peralta said.
Many other municipalities and counties with Latino communities have not yet rolled out any bilingual and cultural outreach programs, Rocha Peralta said. In his view, across the state, private companies have been more effective than county and local governments in connecting with the Latino community.
For its part, the Forest Service has placed signs in Spanish and added several dumpsters that are removed on Mondays along the single gravel road that runs parallel to the river. But there are plenty of challenges from limited funds, labor, logistical constraints and a language barrier.
The surge in visitors at Wilson Creek started even before the pandemic. Around 2015, Jennings observed a meaningful uptick in visitation.
Waugh, who leads the nonprofit A Clean Wilson Creek, also recalls a surge in visitors during 2015. The heavy use of the area was initially concentrated on summer holiday weekends, he said. In 2017, Waugh became involved in volunteer cleanup efforts to help the Forest Service manage litter and trash during those heavy use periods of the summer.
“On holiday weekends, we knew we were going to get hammered. And so, you know, we kind of deal with that, but there was time in between those holidays [when] it wasn’t quite so overwhelming,” he said.
Over the last three years, Waugh said that the area has become popular on non-holiday weekends as well as weekdays. “There’s no break in the action,” he said.
On weekends, observed Waugh, “there may be around 200 cars and families claiming spots along the river.” By noon, the various parking areas that line the road are full.
By the end of a busy day, dumpsters are heaped with bags, piles of spent charcoal, scraps of food, empty cans of soda and beer, and yellow Bojangles cartons with chicken bones.
Trash, said Jennings, is not just a problem at Wilson Creek. It’s also an issue in other high-day-use areas of Pisgah National Forest, such as the Davidson River corridor near Brevard.
“Folks are coming down to Wilson Creek to picnic and to spend the day at the water, so it’s more prolonged use, which generates more trash,” Jennings said.
Human waste is also a problem. Within the entire Wilson Creek day-use area, there are just two toilet seats, except on holiday weekends when the Forest Service sets up several port-a-potties in the river corridor.
Although they are a temporary solution, they aren’t a substitute for additional, permanent restrooms. Port-a-potties can quickly become unsanitary, especially during high-traffic weekends. They’re also vulnerable to vandalism or misuse.
“We recognize that our infrastructure is not right-sized and that there’s a need for more,” Jennings said.
Developing improved facilities and amenities, such as restrooms, parking or trailheads, is complicated by the rugged and narrow terrain of the gorge, the dispersed use over several miles, the public/private landownership and the cost.
On the bright side, Jennings’ staff that manages recreation in the Grandfather Ranger District has grown from two to six over the last 18 months. Still, they oversee an enormous area that is becoming increasingly popular among hikers, mountain bikers, paddlers and day users.
She holds the view that Wilson Creek is a place to be shared but also carefully stewarded. However, because it is accessible to everyone, she said there is a risk of environmental harm.
As the volume of visitors grows, a new generation has the opportunity to put down roots, nurture a sense of belonging and embrace stewardship as they forge a meaningful connection with the river and its environment.
One of the most popular areas of Wilson Creek is a sandy beach just downstream from an idyllic swimming hole framed by a granite cliff.
A girl cheerfully held a clear plastic cup with a crawfish. A moment later, a boy urged her to join him in a search for a snake he spotted in a cluster of rock but has disappeared in a slot underneath a boulder. Their curiosity attracted a small crowd of other children and adults.
After the initial thrill of catching the crawfish fizzles, the girl kneeled by the shoreline and gently released the animal, allowing it to continue its journey unharmed.
- The Nature Gap: Confronting Racial and Economic Disparities in the Destruction and Protection of Nature in America
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