Gates County August 2023


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At a meeting during Blue Cross NC’s Extra Miles Tour in Gates County, Merchants Millpond State Park Ranger Jeffrey Turner perfectly described the park’s commitment to long-term sustainability: “We’re in the forever business.”

That ethos is reflected in the natural beauty of the park itself, including its centerpiece millpond that borders the sprawling Lassiter Swamp. The pond – which makes up 700 of the park’s 4,000 acres – is home to cypress trees that have occupied the site for at least 500 years. Even the wildlife seems prehistoric, with several resident alligators representing the species’ northernmost habitat in the U.S.

The park hosts a quarter-million visitors a year, offering kayaking and paddling around the millpond or just a chance to enjoy the quiet peace of bird calls and gentle breezes. Preserving that natural beauty is a full-time occupation for the park’s staff, with regular prescribed burns to encourage the growth of native grasses and vegetation that provide food and cover for wildlife. In fact, in North Carolina, many declining or rare wildlife species are now found only in fire-dependent habitats, including endangered or threatened species like red-cockaded woodpeckers, golden-winged warblers, painted buntings, northern pine snakes and gopher frogs.

Administrators are seizing on renewed interest in the park since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the height of the period of social isolation, families in search of open spaces and quiet natural beauty discovered Merchants Millpond State Park, and word of its charms spread. The challenge is to reap the financial benefits of ecotourism – dollars used to preserve the park – while still protecting the natural environment that draws so many visitors. Still, officials measure success in the number of visitors, not dollars. This year, the park will host 117 different programs for schools, assisted living groups and corporate gatherings like the Extra Miles Tour. Like all parks in the state, Merchants Millpond State Park needs funding to continue preserving its natural history. And as Ranger Turner reminded us, “Investing in parks is a sure bet.”

Brian Strong, director of NC State Parks, would be inclined to agree. With 41 state parks, 10 national park sites and four national forests, our state offers a range of outdoor escapes where residents and visitors can paddle, picnic, hike, bike, camp, ride, fish and swim. According to Wit Tuttle, Executive Director at Visit NC, North Carolina is the sixth most visited state in the country, and many visitors end up here to hike our mountains, relax on our beaches or walk our trails. And while those destinations are beautiful to behold, they’re also responsible for significant economic impact. Just in rural communities alone, 2021 tourism spending amounted to $11.7 billion and contributed to more than 71,000 jobs.

There are efforts underway to encourage increased use of our natural resources. North Carolina is celebrating 2023 as the Year of the Trail – an effort to celebrate our state’s vast and diverse collection of trails, and next year will bring the Great Trails State initiative – the idea that each of our 100 counties should be able to enjoy the proven benefits of trails, including health, safety, economic development, tourism, transportation and environment. “North Carolina’s brand is natural scenic beauty,” said Tuttle, and with efforts to preserve and enhance our outdoor features, that beauty will remain for years to come.

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U39702, 9/23