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A River Runs Through It: Water Recreation Builds NC Economy

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Hundreds of thousands float the New River in Ashe County ever year. (New River Conservancy)
Hundreds of thousands float the New River in Ashe County ever year. (New River Conservancy)
July 24, 2017

WEST JEFFERSON, N.C. -- For thousands of North Carolinians and visitors, the weekend undoubtedly included a float on one of the hundreds of miles of rivers in the state. North Carolina is home to 17 major river basins, including the oldest river in the nation and second-oldest in the world: the New River in Ashe County.

Each year, an estimated 350,000 people float the river. And the New River Conservancy has worked with county leaders to add acreage and access in New River State Park. President of the land conservation group, George Santucci, explained.

"The county has started to acknowledge the impact and made the investment,” Santucci said. “And we're starting to see shifts industry-wide, where infrastructure is starting to be built up - not just canoe accesses, but service liveries and other service providers that cater to those users."

According to the state, North Carolina's outdoor recreation industry generates more than $19 billion dollars in consumer spending and supports 192,000 jobs.

In Asheville, RiverLink was established 30 years ago when city leaders wanted to give visitors a reason to stay for more than just a day. The group’s executive director, Garret Artz, added that river access and cleanup have grown visitor numbers to 50,000 a year - but that only will continue if rivers are maintained.

“We’ve made a lot of strides in those 31 years - not just Riverlink but as a community - and we have to make sure we don't backslide, because I think the river is still running browner than it should and we want to make sure people are comfortable,” Artz said. "If we do that, if we continue to move forward, I think we're going to be counting in the hundreds of thousands that move through town."

Santucci said it's important to remember that rivers don't follow borders, and they must be maintained across the state.

"Rivers are one of our greatest recreational opportunities and sometimes one of the most forgotten natural resources out there,” he said. "Sometimes people just think once it goes in the river it runs on downstream and it's out of sight, out of mind, but that's not true for everybody. Sooner or later it's going to end up in somebody's backyard."

Earlier this year, the state established an Office of Outdoor Recreation - becoming the first eastern state to do so. Utah, Colorado and Washington state have similar offices.

Stephanie Carson, Public News Service - NC