Outdoors: Charity on wheels

Your car may express your personality, but your license plate can tell the world what cause you support. North Carolina offers more than 100 specialty plates for you to choose from. For an extra $30 a year, you can support and help promote one of several popular outdoor destinations. The organization in question receives $20 per plate, which must be spent on projects in North Carolina. Here are a few of them:

License for a cause: In North Carolina, for $30 a year you can support and help promote the regional treasure of your choice. Photo by Jonathan Welch

Appalachian Trail

The A.T. traverses 14 states from Georgia to Maine, but North Carolina was the first to get a plate approved. In 2009, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which manages the historic footpath, received $116,940 (5,847 plates) from our state's license-plate program. Since its inception, the program has raised $396,240.

Backpackers enjoy the fruits of this new funding source when they stay in an A.T. shelter maintained by the Carolina Mountain Club. The club installed bear cables at 10 shelters, from Davenport Gap to Spivey Gap, where campers can now hang their food bags safe from bears and chipmunks without throwing a rope around a tree. The license-plate money paid for the materials, but the volunteer work is always priceless.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The familiar black bear on a blue-and-green background was designed by Friends of the Smokies. Sarah Weeks, the group's development director, says: "In 2009, we received $385,000 (19,250 plates) from the N.C. specialty plate. The money will benefit the exhibits in the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center, the Trails Forever endowment and the Parks As Classrooms program. This extra source of income makes a huge difference in supporting the park. Since its inception in 2000, the N.C. license-plate program has brought in almost $2 million for us."

And while some might view the various groups as competing for scarce charity dollars, Holly Demuth, director of Friends of the Smokies' North Carolina office, says: "The real competition for the Smokies plates in Western North Carolina isn't the Blue Ridge Parkway plate or the Appalachian Trail plate, but the many people who are driving around with sea oats and the Wright Brothers airplane on their standard North Carolina license plate. We want people in the mountains to choose a plate that better represents our region, and all these park plates do that well."

Blue Ridge Parkway

Among outdoors-related specialty plates, the Blue Ridge Parkway program reigns supreme, and it's expected to do even better during the scenic road's 75th anniversary year. According to Houck Medford, executive director of The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, speciality plates brought in more than half a million dollars last year (more than 25,000 plates). The money has supported 75th-anniversary events, outreach programs such as Kids in Parks and Parks As Classrooms, and improvements to the Rough Ridge Trail, part of the Tanawha Trail on Grandfather Mountain.

"The Parkway tag is in a class of its own," says Medford. "It's the most successful and most popular specialty tag in North Carolina's history. Sales remain high and continue to trend upward." Medford, a motorcycle enthusiast, has also shepherded a Parkway motorcycle plate through the state Legislature.

Mountains-to-Sea Trail

Of course, other outdoor organizations are eager to get their hands on such a lucrative funding source. Last year, Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail worked hard but unsuccessfully to get their own specialty plate. Sen. Joe Sam Queen of Haywood County introduced a bill that was approved in the Senate but never came up for a House vote.

"Highway patrol officers expressed concerns that the state had too many specialty plates and it was difficult to distinguish them," explains Kate Dixon, executive director of Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. "We're gearing up again this year to get an MST plate passed and encourage [group] members to call their House [representatives]. An MST license plate will increase visibility of the trail throughout the state and bring in incremental dollars. Five hundred miles of the MST are still on the road, and we need to acquire land, map and construct trail in those areas." She cites $200,000 for a bridge for Falls Lake in Durham and a possible land purchase close to Stone Mountain State Park.

The Mountains-to-Sea Trail garnered instant publicity when President Obama walked a mile of it recently. But an MST plate would ultimately do more to keep the trail visible.

[Hike leader and outdoors writer Danny Bernstein is the author of Hiking North Carolina's Blue Ridge Heritage. She can be reached at danny@hikertohiker.com.]

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