Western North Carolina, a place of natural beauty marked by areas of ruggedness and isolation, is recognized as a revitalizing health destination, a highly ranked destination for outdoor enthusiasts, and a zone of ecological importance. As a result, forest recreation and tourism have long been important contributors to the regional economy.
At the beginning of the 20th century, little was known of the hydrology of mountain watersheds, specifically how water moves through soil to sustain mountain streams and prevent flooding. The recognition of the importance of forests in watershed protection and wildfire control were the primary justifications for acquisition of the region’s national forests almost a century ago. The additional designations of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park (1940), the Blue Ridge Parkway (begun in 1935), and other significant sites secured the region’s place as one of the most significant natural areas in eastern North America.
The region includes the North Carolina section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the most visited national park unit; the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (located in Western North Carolina and Tennessee) the most visited national park; and the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests, two of the most visited national forests in the U.S. The Parkway winds through popular destination points such as Mount Mitchell, the highest mountain east of the Mississippi River, and Mount Pisgah, known for its panoramic mountain views. Many visitors enjoy abundant rivers and waterfalls, including the highest waterfall in the eastern U.S., Whitewater Falls, in Transylvania County. The Nantahala National Forest includes the Joyce Kilmer Wilderness which contains one of the largest stands of old-growth trees in the eastern U.S. The Pisgah National Forest is the site of the Biltmore Forest School, the first forestry school in America, now open to the public as an educational and interpretive center. The North Carolina Arboretum near Asheville, NC, is one of the finest public gardens in the Southern Appalachians. Grandfather Mountain, elevation 5,946 ft above sea level, is a globally recognized nature preserve which features beautiful mountain scenery, a mile high swinging bridge, and a nature museum, as well as trails, picnic areas and naturalist programs.
The Biltmore Estate, also located in Asheville, is known worldwide as 'America's Largest Home'. This private attraction includes a mansion with 250 rooms, 65 fireplaces, one indoor pool and a bowling alley, vineyards, an historic farm, crafts, and music performances. The estate annually draws approximately one million visitors to the Asheville area.
Outdoor recreation activities include innumerable hiking trails, including a 200 mile section of the famed Appalachian Trail. Top ranked mountain biking, hunting, fishing, rafting, kayaking, canoeing, birding, rock climbing, camping, skiing, and even ziplining bring outdoor enthusiasts to the area. The ski slopes of Cataloochee, Sugar, and Beech Mountains and others summon winter sports travelers. Rivers such as the Nantahala, French Broad, Green and Cheoah are among the region’s waterways with world class whitewater rafting, kayaking, canoeing, tubing, swimming, and other water fun. Asheville is repeatedly cited as one of the best travel destinations in the world offering arts and crafts, outdoor adventures, eclectic cuisine, spas and resorts, public gardens and more.
Blue Ridge National Heritage Area
In 2003, again recognizing the region’s natural beauty, unique character, and cultural history, the U.S. Congress designated the mountains of Western North Carolina as the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area (BRNHA). The BRNHA includes the eighteen counties in this Report Card plus the Qualla Boundary and Burke, Caldwell, McDowell, Polk, Rutherford, Surry, and Yadkin Counties. The federal government cited ‘a distinctive landscape arising from patterns of human activity shaped by geography’. The mission of BRNHA is to protect, preserve, interpret, and develop the region for the benefit of present and future generations and strive to stimulate improved economic opportunity in the area.
Who recreates here and why?
A 2008 study completed in the BRNHA counties found preferences of visitors differ with demographic and socioeconomic factors. It was discovered that a large portion of the visitors to the region come from those living nearby in North Carolina or from surrounding southeastern states. Of the 4,125 respondents, 23 percent identified themselves as day trippers, and 77 percent as overnight visitors. The average age of day trippers is 50 years old, and, for overnight, 53 years old. Most respondents, day or overnight, fell between the ages of 46 to 65. This is slightly higher than that of travelers to the state as a whole which has a mean age, in 2006, of 45.
Almost half of all visitors to the region, have a college degree or a graduate degree, making the BRNHA group more highly educated when compared to the U.S. population, of which 27 percent has a college degree. Well over half of the visitors have higher household incomes than the national median household income. A majority of visitors travel in parties of two, as the median party size for both overnight guests and day trippers was 2.7.
The results indicate the highest preference is for outdoor recreation, followed by festivals and events, gardens or trails, crafts, Cherokee sites, music activities, and farms and orchards. Preferences also appear to differ among men and women. For example, the top activities for women were craft activities while men rated outdoor recreation or ecotourism at the top of their lists. This data has proved useful in targeting tourism marketing efforts. The study also gives hints for development of tourism attractions that will appeal to particular visitor sectors.
Number of Visitors
From 1985 to 2009, the total number of recreation visits in the region’s national forests increased from 2.9 million to 6.8 million, an increase of 136 percent. From 1993-2002, the number of average annual visitors to the North Carolina section of the Blue Ridge Parkway was 11.6 million. The number of visitors to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee has varied slightly but has remained around 9 million per year. The national forests in Western North Carolina, which offer a much broader range of recreational activities, are some of the most visited in the national forest system.
Paying for Recreation
The region's public and private resources and attractions are a significant driver of the economy and have a strong influence on local employment and wages. In 2008, the annual budget for the entire Blue Ridge Parkway was $16.1 million. Between 1980 and 2006, the Parkway budget increased 0.5 percent after adjusted for inflation; thus, federal allocations have not kept pace with operating and maintenance costs. Due to flat budget levels, staffing has decreased, many facilities close earlier in the fall and open later in spring, law enforcement officers are stretched beyond capacity, and vistas have become overgrown or non-existent. Preserving and protecting the Parkway and its millions of visitors each year is important. The Parkway is a sound economic engine for tourism, as it generates an estimated $2.3 billion annually in North Carolina and Virginia.
In the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, located in North Carolina and Tennessee, there are similar signs of budget shortfalls. With no entrance fee, the park suffers from overuse. Each year, 9 million people visit only 520,000 acres. In comparison, Yellowstone National Park which encompasses 2.2 million acres averages only 3 million visitors annually. The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is estimated to have a maintenance backlog approaching $170 million, and is operating under a shortfall of around $11 million annually.
From 2000-2010, total national forest recreation budgets have been steadily increasing. In the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests, recreation operations and management funds have increased from $1.0 million to 1.8 million, an 80 percent nominal increase (42% increase when adjusted for inflation) while trail construction and maintenance has increased from $332,084 to $387,309 (16 percent nominal increase, but an 8% decline when adjusted for inflation). From 2000 to 2010, recreation fee receipts to the national forests in Western North Carolina increased from $1,028,477 to $1,338,532 (30 percent nominal increase, but only a 3% increase when adjusted for inflation). With passage of the 2005 Recreation Enhancement Act, special recreation uses, such as those that require extra measures to protect natural or cultural resources, saw almost a four-fold increase from $120,928 to $429,036 (but still more than a three-fold increase when adjusted for inflation.)
The national forests in Western North Carolina are also dealing with a substantial recreation management and maintenance back log. The forests have a large number of developed and dispersed recreation sites which are aging and showing signs of overuse.
In addition to the natural attractions, the region includes the city of Asheville which receives over 2.9 million visitors per year. From 2000 to 2007, the economic contribution of tourism from the greater Asheville area, including direct and indirect revenue, almost doubled from $1.0 billion to $1.9 billion.
With operating costs continually increasing and owners/operators rarely able to keep pace, many organizations, both public and private, have had to implement or increase a fee program to meet operating and maintenance costs.
Some national parks collect no entrance or users fees (Great Smoky Mountains , Blue Ridge Parkway) while others (Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon) individually generate more than $4 million a year in entrance fees. The reason the Great Smoky Mountains National Park doesn’t charge an entrance fee dates back to the 1930’s, when the land was privately owned. In 1936, the state of Tennessee transferred ownership of Newfound Gap Road to the federal government with a stipulation that to travel on the road, 'no toll or license fee shall ever be imposed'. At the time, the road was a major route crossing the southern Appalachians and the state wanted to continue free interstate transportation for its citizens. In order to charge a fee, the Tennessee legislature would be required to lift this deed restriction. Whether or not activity fees will be introduced or increased is still under debate.
With a more encompassing mission of multiple use, the national forests have had somewhat more flexibility in fees and revenue generation. In 2010, the Forest Service is proposing modest fee increases for some recreation activities. The fee programs seek to defray the cost of providing services and facilities; however, most recreation is dispersed and the fee program does little to provide management funds for trails and management of backcountry recreation. The great majority of the recreation budget goes to support developed facilities.
User fees are continuing to raise awareness in all national forests and parks. Fee programs commonly referred to as “pay to play” may be the future of hiking and other recreation. Fees are beginning to show up at popular trailheads in some parts of the country, where they can be used for trail management and restoration, as well as facility maintenance. Fees may also be implemented to encourage use of less popular areas and curtail use in overused areas. This could in turn lead recreationists to flock to more pristine, lightly used areas of land which could cause environmental damage in its own regard.