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Great American Outdoors Act Could Help NC Expand State Parks

The Roan Highlands in North Carolina is a conservation focus area of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. (Travis Bordley)
The Roan Highlands in North Carolina is a conservation focus area of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. (Travis Bordley)
July 14, 2020

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- The U.S. Senate recently passed legislation aimed at ensuring the nation's land and water resources, particularly its national parks and forests, are maintained and protected for future generations. Conservation groups in North Carolina say the bill could expand residents' access to outdoor recreation areas.

The House is expected to vote on the Great American Outdoors Act by the end of July. Carl Silverstein, executive director of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, said the state park system is working on creating new parks in areas that don't already have any.

"In Buncombe County, the state's working on creating Pisgah View State Park," Silverstein said. "And so land acquisition by the state is happening in phases. They've finished phase one, but I think they're going to spread it out maybe over three more years. And this fund would help provide dollars to help get that done."

The legislation also would help address the more than $450 million North Carolina's national parks have racked up in deferred maintenance.Silverstein pointed out the bill would permanently secure around $900 million per year reserved for the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.

"Over the years, Congress tended to divertn the money to other uses rather than for the intended purpose," he said. "And the new statute, the new bill is to fix all that and to allocate permanent funding."

He said there aren't enough places for North Carolinians to get outdoors and experience nature, especially as the coronavirus pandemic has led more people to seek out socially distant activities. He said conservation organizations such as his work to buy parcels of land that often are located near national forests.

"Some of the families who own the land are selling it because they have to in order to make ends meet," he said. "And so when we are able to buy those properties, it does help them work out their financial solution, and still enable that land asset to be conserved for the future and then used for public benefit."

According to federal data, more than 18 million park visitors spent approximately $1.4 billion in North Carolina in 2019.

Support for this reporting was provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - NC