For the second consecutive year, the Blue Ridge Parkway was the most visited attraction managed by the National Park Service. The scenic roadway saw 15.9 million recreation visits in 2021, up from about 14 million in 2020; the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which also includes land in Western North Carolina, was in second place with over 14.1 million visits.
“While overall parkway visitation has remained relatively stable over the past five to 10 years, some of the park’s most popular destinations are seeing the impacts of heavy visitation,” said Blue Ridge Parkway Superintendent Tracy Swartout in a press release announcing the numbers.
“Overcrowding at popular locations can lead to diminished visitor experience and damage to park resources,” Swartout continued. “These impacts can often be avoided by recreating responsibly. With 469 miles to explore, we encourage you to find new ways to enjoy the parkway this year.”
Camping on the parkway has sharply increased in recent years, nearly 57% from 2014 levels. Since 2019, the last year the NPS considers “high occupancy,” tent camping is up nearly 10%, with recreational vehicle camping up more than 16%.
Utopian Seed Project gets grants for taro research
Best known as a culinary staple of African, Polynesian and South Asian cultures, the tuber called taro may be taking root in WNC. The Asheville-based nonprofit Utopian Seed Project, which works to develop sustainable regional food systems through promoting biodiversity, has received a $20,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program to research the plant. The Community Foundation of WNC has also provided $30,000 for the nonprofit to outfit its experimental farm in Leicester.
Over the next two years, the nonprofit will conduct field trials of different taro varieties and test strategies for increasing yields. The group will also partner with Ashleigh Shanti, an Asheville-based chef, to host a cooking event where area residents can weigh in on which varieties taste best.
Chris Smith, the Utopian Seed Project’s executive director, says that experimenting with new crops such as taro is a critical part of the region’s adaptation to climate change. As the region becomes hotter, with more extreme rainfall patterns, plants that evolved in tropical conditions might help farmers diversify their fields.
“Everything we have learned about growing taro in WNC suggests that it is a crop with a lot of potential to address the problems of food security in a warming climate,” Smith writes in an overview of the project for SARE. “This will allow us to support more farmers in growing taro as an additional and climate resilient crop, while also generating demand in the food system for the alternative crop.”
- Hendersonville-based nonprofit Conserving Carolina purchased over 57 acres of old-growth forest in the Hickory Nut Gorge, adjacent to the Wildcat Rock Trail, with plans to manage it as a nature preserve. The land, known as Chestnut Hills, hasn’t been logged for at least a century and provides habitat for three rare salamander species.
- According to the Local Government Clean Energy Report produced by the nonprofit N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, Asheville leads the state’s municipalities in residential solar power systems per capita, at roughly 6.7 per 1,000 residents. Asheville also had the third-highest residential solar power capacity per capita. The full report is available at avl.mx/bbw.
- Mayor Esther Manheimer has declared March through May and September through November as Bird Migration Awareness Months in the city of Asheville. The mayor’s proclamation encourages all residents to turn off nonessential lighting 11 p.m.-6 a.m. to prevent migrating birds from becoming disoriented and colliding with buildings.
- Asheville-based nonprofit RiverLink celebrated the milestone of 100 storm drains covered by its Adopt-A-Storm-Drain program, which uses volunteers to keep drains clear and prevent stormwater pollution. The program is now expanding from central Asheville to West Asheville’s Smith Mill Creek watershed, with the goal of adopting another 100 drains in 2022. More information and registration are available at avl.mx/bby.
- MR Gardens, a sustainable nursery in Asheville’s Oakley community, starts its seasonal open house series Thursday, March 17. Native perennials, ground covers, annual flowers, herbs and vegetable starts will all be available for purchase. More information is available at NativePlantsAsheville.com or by contacting Megan Riley at Megan@MRGardens.net.
- The Online Gardening School run by Wild Abundance, a Barnardsville-based permaculture school, is open for enrollment through Friday, April 1. Course topics include holistic garden planning, soil fertility and growing details for over 25 common crop varieties. More information and registration are available at avl.mx/bbd.
- WNC farmers who suffered losses due to Tropical Storm Fred are eligible for assistance through the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The Agricultural Crop Loss Program covers Buncombe and all adjacent counties, as well as Avery, Mitchell and Watauga. Applications must be submitted by Friday, April 15; more information is available at avl.mx/bc0 or by calling 866-747-9823.
- The Asheville-Buncombe Air Quality Agency seeks volunteers to serve on an advisory committee. Members will help the committee research air quality matters, make policy recommendations and conduct environmental outreach with the public. More information and an application are available at avl.mx/bbz.
Save the date
- Hendersonville Green Drinks hosts Tom Fanslow, land protection director at Conserving Carolina, for a virtual
presentation on the value of conserving open space at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 10. Fanslow will also address Henderson County’s comprehensive planning process, which will set the county government’s course on land conservation for the next 10-20 years. More information and registration are available at avl.mx/bbv.
- UNC Asheville screens the Emmy-winning documentary America’s First Forest: Carl Schenck and the Asheville Experiment at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 22, in the OLLI Reuter Center, Room 102. The film outlines Schenck’s forestry efforts at the Biltmore Estate and his establishment of the country’s first forestry school in what is now Pisgah Forest.
- The Waynesville-based nonprofit Waterfall Keepers of North Carolina is sponsoring group cleanups of 12 waterfalls across the region Saturday, March 26. Locations include Bernie’s Falls and Toxaway Falls near Lake Toxaway and Parker Creek Falls near Balsam Grove. More information and registration are available at avl.mx/bbt.
- The Friends of the WNC Nature Center holds the second annual Running of the Goats 5K and Nature Walk Sunday, April 24. While no goats will participate in the race itself, runners will pass the zoo’s farm animal display on the first part of the course. More information and registration is available at WildWNC.org/RunWild.