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The surge in outdoor recreation during the pandemic has taken a toll on Wilson Creek, a beloved outdoor recreation corridor in North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest. The increase in demand for outdoor experiences has highlighted the need for responsible stewardship and management of public lands, particularly in “gateway” regions like Wilson Creek, where increased visitation poses both opportunities and challenges.
As more people discover Wilson Creek, concerns about environmental impacts and overcrowding have come to the forefront. Local organizations, nonprofits and government agencies are collaborating to address these issues and find solutions.
With a growing interest in the area’s stewardship, Wilson Creek could become a model for collective cooperation, emphasizing the importance of protecting the resource while ensuring equitable access and responsible use. Despite the challenges, a new generation of visitors from the Latinx community has the opportunity to develop a deep connection, fostering a sense of belonging and stewardship for this cherished landscape.
Local response to the challenges
Ryan Jacobs, the mountain eco-region supervisor for the land and water access division of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, or WRC, said heavy concentrated use is impacting the streambank’s ecology.
The area is also a popular destination among anglers, with numerous access points on the roughly 715 acres managed by the WRC.
According to Jacobs, Wilson Creek supports a high diversity of wildlife because of its unique topography. But the user paths and ad-hoc picnic areas along the sandy riverbank disrupt its stability, resulting in sediment accumulation—made up of loose rock, gravel or sand—and the loss of streambank vegetation, such as grasses or shrubs. Runoff from rains transports sediment from eroded trails or picnic sites into the waterway, forming sandbars, gravel beds or muddy flats within the stream. The buildup of sedimentation poses a threat to aquatic ecosystems, diminishing water clarity and purity. For instance, it can hinder aquatic species reproduction or transport bacteria.
“The problem is the volume and capacity is overflowing. We’re at the point where we have to come together and provide capacity solutions that help regulate this river better. And I know how freaking complex and hard it is, but there’s no other choice,” said Wes Waugh, executive director of A Clean Wilson Creek. “This isn’t sustainable and is ecologically damaging to a National Wild and Scenic River.
“I’ve got no issues with who uses the river. What I have issues with is how many people can use the river.”
The ideal solution, said Waugh, would involve more oversight and an increase in federal, state and county law enforcement patrolling the river to ensure responsible use.
Waugh’s organization is asking the U.S. Forest Service, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and Caldwell County elected officials for action in 2024 that includes reducing user capacity by 20%, providing portable toilets and increasing roadside infrastructure.
The Forest Service has proposed user fees in other areas, such as the Bent Creek Experimental Forest near Asheville and the Pisgah Complex Mountain Bike and Horse Trails. Charging a fee in Wilson Creek could be hard to implement and enforce in areas not managed by the Forest Service and complicated by the patchwork of private and public landowners.
Additionally, managing the high volume of visitors becomes complex due to the diverse array of recreational activities, such as fishing, boating and hiking, making it challenging to establish fair regulations that may also lead to disputes.
Among the challenges to building new facilities is a backlog of maintenance projects. According to the Forest Service, budget shortfalls have led to a deferred maintenance backlog of roughly $6 billion nationally.
There are also barriers specific to Wilson Creek.
“Part of the complexity of managing Wilson Creek are the changes in landownership along the river that go from state to private to public, to county, back to private to state,” explained Lisa Jennings, the U.S. Forest Service’s recreation manager of the Grandfather Ranger District in Pisgah National Forest. “It’s nearly impossible to describe to somebody in the general public what land you’re on.”
To leverage their limited resources, Jennings said the Forest Service partners with other government entities, nonprofit organizations and the local community to clean up the area on a regular basis.
Keeping Mortimer clean
A flagpole stands in a field near Wilson Creek, serving as a marker for the former site of the W.M. Ritter Co. store in what was formerly the center of Mortimer. Once bustling with hundreds of residents, the town was established in 1908 and provided capital and labor to process the trees harvested from its slopes. However, the 1916 flood, followed by another in 1940, coupled with the decline of the timber and textile industries, ultimately marked the end of its prosperity.
One of the structures that survived the 1940 flood was Betsey’s Ole Country Store. Bruce Gray is often on the store’s front porch. On a recent summer morning, Gray, who has neatly cut hair and is wearing black-rimmed glasses, is smoking a cigar and drinking a Sun Drop soda.
In front of the store, Ukrainian and American flags fly above the porch. A sign at the store’s entrance says, “Shalom.” Behind the shop is a campground.
Gray’s father introduced him to the area on a camping trip at the age of 5. Over the past few years, he has witnessed a noticeable rise in both the number of visitors and the issue of litter.
Gray has voiced his frustration regarding the perceived lack of efforts in managing the area, especially in terms of litter cleanup and facility enhancements. Taking matters into his own hands, he created a nonprofit organization now called A Clean Wilson Creek dedicated to addressing the trash issue. Gray, a wheelchair user, actively collects garbage from his truck, organizes community events to generate funds, and has enlisted dozens of individuals to join him over the years.
“The whole idea is to educate everybody. This is a jewel in the crown of our country. Not just Caldwell County. Not North Carolina, but the entire country,” he said.
Gray eventually formed an organization, the Wilson Creek Clean Up Fund, to coordinate cleanups and raise funds, which Wes Waugh took over in 2018.
Waugh credited Gray for his stewardship efforts over the years.
“Bruce had cleaned up the river on his own for close to 10 years. He removed, you know, tons and tons of garbage on his own out of his own pocket with very little support,” said Waugh.
Under Waugh’s leadership, the organization, now known as A Clean Wilson Creek is a program partnered with the Forest Service. The agency supports the program by providing supplies and access to a workstation in Mortimer. Waugh has also established a partnership with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, which provides trash bags and cleanup materials.
Gray complained that many of the visitors who generate the trash are Hispanic, but their ethnicity doesn’t matter to him, he said.
“All I care about is that whoever is using the area picks up their trash,” said Gray.
Waugh said he welcomes the diversity of visitors but acknowledges that longtime users of the area are discouraged because of the recent intensity of use.
“I think most of those people have taken a step back away from Wilson Creek, and just refuse to go there,” Waugh said. “Some feel they have been completely displaced from an area they grew up using.”
During the interview with Gray, a neighbor who chose to remain anonymous, expressed frustration regarding the escalating level of activity and its consequences along the creek. The neighbor’s grievances included obstructed roadways due to parked cars, a perceived absence of environmental awareness among visitors, large groups using illegal fishing techniques, and concerns about the perceived presence of Latino gang activity in the area.
Caldwell County Sheriff’s Deputy John Runion said in an email that the agency’s priority is to “take care of our citizens and their property. We focus on keeping the roadway clear for emergency vehicles, as well as those who live in the immediate area.”
The department enforces alcohol and open fire violations, and Runion said there has been an “increase in alcohol violations, littering, graffiti, civil disturbances, wildlife violations and motor vehicle violations.”
The Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office does not have a policy specifically for undocumented individuals; however, Runion said, “If a person is arrested on any offense and processed at the detention facility, immigration status is verified.”
Deputies routinely patrol Wilson Creek year-round, although extra deputies are scheduled to patrol on weekends from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Currently, there is no Forest Service law enforcement; however, the area also falls under the jurisdiction of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
Jonathan Kiger, an officer with the WRC, can enforce any misdemeanor violation that occurs in his presence; however, his mandate is to protect the state’s wildlife resources.
There are two WRC officers in Caldwell County, which includes portions of Rhodhiss Lake, also a popular fishing and recreation destination. The WRC does not have a Hispanic outreach employee in Caldwell County.
He said there has been an increase in fishing violations. In North Carolina, inland game fish may only be caught with a hook and line, and it’s unlawful to use a device, such as a spear, to impale a fish.
“We started to see spears about six or seven years ago in the area,” Kiger said. “In the last couple of years, I’ve been making a pile of spearfishing cases. It’s kind of gotten out of hand.”
This year, Kiger has observed an increase in store-bought spears. Previously, the gear was homemade.
Over the July 4 weekend, Kiger handled 10 spearfishing cases. “There’s no telling how much was actually going on. That’s just what I’m able to catch,” he said.
The biggest damage of spearfishing is to the smallmouth bass population since the fish hide between rocks and therefore are easier to capture with a spear.
The majority of spear violations, Kiger said, are made by Latinos.
“There is a cultural and language barrier, but it’s very rare that you’ll run into the same people multiple times,” he said. “So, it’s hard to educate. One of the things we’ll hear often is, ‘This is my first time here.’”
“Once you’ve crossed over that cultural barrier, a lot of them just want to do the right thing,” said Kiger, who speaks some Spanish. “We just need a better way to deal with the educational barriers.”
Potential solution: Talk of limited use and fees
According to Waugh, the need to balance access with ecological sustainability is urgent. Waugh said that land managers should prioritize protecting the river and the environment above all else, even if it means temporarily limiting recreational use.
The problem of overcapacity has become overwhelming, said Waugh, with trash and human waste becoming unmanageable. He said his organization’s ability to support cleanups is beyond its capacity given its current operational framework, putting its support in jeopardy.
Waugh said the absence of clear authority in the multijurisdictional river corridor has resulted in a disjointed management scheme.
“The county sees it as a Forest Service issue. The Forest Service says they’re trying to make a plan. North Carolina Wildlife doesn’t really do infrastructure in high-use areas like Wilson Creek,” he said.
Jennings said that Forest Service budgets cover the day-to-day operations of the agency.
“Our budgets don’t give us the flexibility to make large, new improvements,” she said. “There are immediate needs, but to be successful in what the future looks like we need to look at Wilson Creek holistically.”
In addition, projects must obey National Environmental Policy Act regulations that require the Forest Service to evaluate the environmental, social and economic effects of a proposed action.
What is needed, said Waugh, is a thorough study to assess the current state of the river corridor, including the ecology, parking, restroom, enforcement and other visitor facilities. An assessment would identify areas where funding is required for maintenance, restoration or improvement.
Funding for the plan is in the works, said Jennings of the Forest Service
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was initial work on conceptual planning for the area; however, progress was slow due to a lack of momentum and partner cohesion, said Jennings.
However, in September, Jennings said that Lenoir-based nonprofit Carolina Land and Lakes RC&D committed $75,000 to fund a portion of a river corridor plan that will be guided by public input.
This funding will facilitate the creation of a plan that will enable fundraising for subsequent stages of development in heavily used areas of Forest Service land on Wilson Creek.
Before the planning effort kicks off in January, the Forest Service will conduct public information sessions later this fall to assess geographical feasibility and align it with community and user perspectives. Currently, efforts are underway to build a coalition of nonprofit organizations, Latino residents and other public agencies. Jennings emphasized that the planning effort will be led by a coalition of stakeholders, with the Forest Service playing a central role.
“We have an organizational commitment to improve the user experience and get a handle on what’s happening in Wilson Creek,” said Jennings. Ideally, the plan will propose improvements on national forest lands to enhance access in a more organized manner as more and more people spend time outdoors.
Amid the pandemic, many people embraced outdoor pursuits. Jennings noted that while Pisgah National Forest has been experiencing rising visitation over the last two decades, there was a notable surge in 2021 and 2022 attributed to the pandemic.
“Once people start coming, visitation doesn’t go back down,” Jennings said. “People tell their friends, and places get even more popular. That’s what’s happening at Wilson Creek and everywhere in the country.”
The increase in demand places recreational stewardship and access in focus on public lands. Particularly in “gateway” portions of the national forest, such as Wilson Creek.
“Gateway communities” has become a familiar buzzword among public land managers recently, said Jennings. A gateway community or area is one along the border of publicly owned lands. Typically, the communities are rural.
Rural gateways to public lands are access points to exceptional outdoor locations. They are also at the crossroads of the soaring expansion of visitation to popular outdoor recreational assets and the struggle to protect ecosystems, landscapes and cultural heritage.
Gateway areas are frequently visited, so it’s crucial to enhance parking, restrooms, trash disposal, and signage. This not only makes visits better for people but also helps safeguard our forests, rivers, and other natural spots.
But some rural communities, such as Mortimer, at the edge of Pisgah National Forest’s public lands throughout the nation have expressed the desire to retain traditional use of the area, which could limit visitors.
While managing the number of users may help manage trash, parking and the river’s ecology, there is another cost potentially associated with restricting people from nature: threats to water quality, biodiversity loss and the loss of nature become invisible and harder to care about.
One solution has been to collaborate with community groups and economic hubs through groups like Blue Ridge Rising, an initiative of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation. As a nonprofit fundraising partner for the Blue Ridge Parkway, the foundation works to connect community leaders and underserved populations to attract more diverse visitors to the area.
However, these gateway hubs to public lands, said Jennings, are places that are not just physically accessible but often where people first experience outdoor recreation.
“We are experiencing a shift in how we do the connection between public land, communities and recreation,” said Jennings.
Despite the challenges on Wilson Creek, Waugh is enthusiastic about recent developments.
Waugh said there is growing interest from various organizations keen on the area’s stewardship, including the biology department at Lenoir Rhyne University and a collaborative partnership with Appalachian State University’s department of biology that involves collecting fish and macroinvertebrates in Wilson Creek to further research and conservation efforts.
As the volume of visitors to Wilson Creek grows, a new generation, like Waugh decades ago, 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.
“We’re seeing all this synergy and collective effort being focused on folks that want to come in and help us look at all these multifaceted issues and decide what role they can play,” he said. “We have a unique opportunity with this pocket wilderness to become a national model for collective cooperation.”
- Caldwell County
- NC Wildlife Resources Commission: Pisgah Game Lands Plan (2018 – 27)
- Wilson Creek National Wild and Scenic Comprehensive River Management Plan (2005)
- A Clean Wilson Creek
- Latinos Aventureros
- The Nature Gap: Confronting Racial and Economic Disparities in the Destruction and Protection of Nature in America
- Pisgah Nantahala National Forest Plan (2013)
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