ELIZABETHTOWN — It was no picnic for state park representatives in Bladen County on Thursday.
The Bladen County Public Library was host Thursday evening to an open house, held for the purpose of ascertaining local opinions on the possibility of developing a state park along the Black River in Bladen, Sampson and Pender counties.
According to a press release, the area was chosen for study because of its 1,600-year old cypress trees and popularity with paddlers, along with the absence of state park facilities in Sampson County and a review of archaeological, historic, biological, geological, and scenic themes.
“One of the big benefits of having a state park is the nature conservation,” said Dave Head, planning program manager with the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation. “Conservation groups have limited staff, and (the state park system) could manage the land with controlled burns that would really get the land back to the way it used to be 2,000 years ago.”
The group is studying the area along the Black River that begins at the Colly Creek/Black River confluence. The region extends north along the Black River into Sampson County where Six Runs Creek and the Great Coharie River converge. The portion lying in Bladen County includes Henry’s Landing, Sparkleberry Landing, The Narrows, and Hunts Bluff.
The state is studying the feasibility of three different types of state park units:
— State parks, which can accommodate the development of facilities while balancing any damage of scenic or natural features,
— State natural areas, which are focused on preserving and protecting areas of scientific, aesthetic, or ecological value and have limited facilities, and
— State trails, which promote access to natural and scenic areas within North Carolina.
Guests at the open house were able to give feedback about what kind of recreation — if any — they would like to see in categories that included education, camping, play areas, water access, and fishing and boating.
“There are a variety of options in each category, some of which are very minimal and some of which attract a variety of guests,” Head remarked.
Local opinions were varied. Rachel Giddens lives along the Black River, and she and many of her neighbors were there to speak against the idea.
“We’ve got a lot of farmers in that area, and there are a lot of regulations about farming,” she said. “They’ve told us there will be 60,000 visitors a year to the park, and when you get that many people around farms, there are always problems.”
“They say it’s about conservation, but those cypress trees are so hard to access that you can’t reach them except by paddling upstream,” added Donna Sykes, who also lives in the area being studied. “It’s already beautiful, and adding 60,000 people is only going to ruin it.”
Dale Howell lives in the region, and he’s looking at it from an environmental standpoint.
“You get that many people in there, and it will certainly ruin fishing,” he commented.
Other guests, like Bryan Blackwell, voiced safety concerns.
“I’m not against it,” he began, “but I do have questions about their ability to handle the number of people they say will be there. I just talked to two park rangers, and they said they have no jurisdiction outside of the state park. It takes three hours to get my property if I call for help. Who’s going to protect me and my property when these people come? If they can provide a solution to that, I wouldn’t have a problem with it.”
Not everyone was against the idea, however. Elizabethtown businessman and Camp Clearwater owner David Clark was there to gather information and voice his opinion.
“When I was a boy, I used to run and play in forests of long-leaf pines, and they aren’t there any more,” he said. “Somebody should have conserved that area 70 years ago. If we want places for our grandchildren, and their grandchildren after them, to enjoy, we better be doing everything we can to conserve our natural resources now.”
Head agreed, and also spoke of the economic benefit to the county.
“People who come and camp — if we go that route — could come into Elizabethtown and spend money dining or shopping,” he explained. “It could be a real benefit economically to the area.”
After the open house in Bladen County, the state park system will be holding two additional forums. The first, in Pender County, will be held Monday, Sept. 18, from 4-7 p.m. at the Cooperative Extension Office in Burgaw. The second, in Sampson County, will take place Wednesday, Sept. 20 from 4:30-7:30 p.m. at Union Elementary School. Head said other forums could possibly be added afterward, “depending on how the first three go.”
The forum itself, according to Sykes, Brinkley, and Giddens, was an effort at backpedaling of a sort. Introduced in March, House Bill 353, as originally worded, would have given the park system the authority to purchase land along the Black River. Legislators insisted the bill be amended to require a feasibility study including public input and expected cost before jumping in with development. The new language says the state park system will conduct the study and report back to the General Assembly in March of next year.
North Carolina residents are invited to give their input in several ways. In addition to the in-person forums, residents are invited to visit ncparks.gov/black-river or go directly to the survey at surveymonkey.com/r/BlackRiverFS.
In addition, a petition against the park has been drafted. Available at the forums, the petition states a desire to see the area unchanged and cites a sufficient number of boat access areas already available. Giddens said the petition already has 1,000 signatures.
“If you consider how many people there are in this area, there’s really a lot of opposition to this,” she said.
After the park system reports back to legislators in March, the entire process, if approved, will take years, according to Bladen County N.C. House Rep. William Brisson, who, along with county commissioners and county administrators, was at the forum.
“I think it will be passed,” he remarked. “They may have gone about it the wrong way, and they scared people with the number 60,000, but at the end of the day, the whole state gets a say in whether this happens or not.”
“There may be 60,000 visitors, but that’s over a year, which translates to 200 visitors a day,” explained Head. “When you spread that over 40 miles, that’s not really a large number.”
As for how much local or state-wide opinions mattered, Head said there was no formula for weighing local or state opinions, but what locals think “will certainly be given serious consideration.”
For most of those locals, the overwhelming majority of whom were against any form of development, it all boiled down to one thing.
“It’s untouched, and we want to keep it that way,” commented Kristen Brinkley.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.