Could northeastern North Carolina’s natural resources be the key for boosting the region’s economy?
Northeastern North Carolina is home to 10 national wildlife refuges – all within a two-hour drive of each other. That’s more than 300,000 acres of wild places in this little corner of the state.
While that is a significant asset to the region, communities with wildlife refuges are traditionally poor ones, says Mike Bryant, N.C. Coastal Plain Refuge Complex project leader. “These are communities that are rich in natural resources, but generally don’t have a robust economy.”
Regional leaders, along with wildlife management experts, hope to change that. More than 80 people from 14 counties met earlier this fall in a brainstorming session aimed at developing strategies that support balanced growth of nature-based tourism in the region.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and the Albemarle Commission hosted the workshop, called “Balancing Nature and Commerce in Northeastern North Carolina,” on October 12 through 14 in Plymouth, N.C.
Bryant says the pool of representatives have charged themselves with branding the region to draw in eco-tourism. For example, Bryant says he is part of a subgroup committed to developing a paddling trail map that incorporates all the refuges
“On national wildlife refuges, wildlife always comes first, but then we also want to support wildlife-dependent recreational opportunities such as hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, interpretation, canoeing and environmental education,” he says.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants locals and visitors alike to know the value of these lands and the benefit they hold to the public and the community.
“We are looking at branding the whole geographic area so it takes on an identity, much like the Outer Banks has an identity,” he says. “We recognize that as people pass through the area all they may see is a sign for a refuge as they head to the Outer Banks.
“Through marketing, we can show that these areas travelers pass through have a lot to offer. They are more than just a place to get gas and use the bathroom.”
Bryant and other community leaders hope that passersby will see that the regions surrounding national wildlife refuges have not only recreational opportunities that are compatible with wildlife preservation, but also cultural and historic sites and opportunities to shop for unique locally made wares.
“That doesn’t happen overnight, but we’ve put it in motion,” he says. “These are places worth stopping, places to eat and spend the night. Our vision is for our neighbors to build an economy around the natural resources and culture.”
One example of how ecotourism can work is the Wings Over Water Festival held during a week in October every year. During the festival, more than 100 trips, tours and programs are offered, focusing on birding, wildlife photography, paddling, art and natural history. The festival is held across a five-county region of northeastern North Carolina and offers programs at Alligator River, Pea Island, Pocosin Lakes, Mattamuskeet, Mackay Island and Currituck national wildlife refuges.
Between 250 and 300 people register every year for the programs during the weekend, says Steve Brumfield, U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Wings Over Water coordinator. “Those are just the people who register,” he says, “but they also bring their family and friends here as well.”
While here, participants and their families rent cottages, eat in restaurants and patronize stores to buy everything from cameras and batteries to mosquito netting and bug spray.
This year, there will also be a winter weekend in early December. Brumfield says it was added to draw people to the region during a period when there is a wide variety of migratory birds wintering or passing through, such as tundra swan and snow geese. The weekend will focus mostly on birding and wildlife photography due to colder temperatures. The winter weekend complements with Mattamuskeet’s Swan Days, another wildlife festival in the area.
Out of the workshop in Plymouth came a modest action plan that will move toward branding the region as a place worth stopping.
“We want to let people know that these refuges are a treasure and a refreshing place to be, especially for people who may not have these open spaces where they live,” Bryant says. “We’ve been in the region for more than 80 years conserving and managing these lands for important wildlife, specifically migratory birds and waterfowl, but also black bear and deer.”
Bryant notes that a goal of the workshop for the US Fish and Wildlife Service was also to reach the local community and let them know about the value of the refuges.
“We realized that many locals may not know a lot about the refuges and the value they have to people of the community,” he says. “All they may know about them is that there are these pieces of federal land here.
“We live, work, raise families and recreate here and want to share with people the value of these lands and how recognizing and building on the asset can translate into an improved local economies.”
The two-and-a-half day workshop included speakers from Western North Carolina University, Roanoke River Partners, the Golden LEAF Foundation, the Natural Capital Investment Fund and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
The Albemarle Commission is charged with coordinating the initiative as it moves forward.
Want to go?
Northeastern North Carolina is home to 10 wildlife refuges, two national seashores, two national park sites, five state parks and numerous other parks and nature preserves.
Northeastern North Carolina Wildlife Refuges
National Wildlife Refuges Visitor Center
100 Conservation Way, Manteo
Cedar Island Refuge
252-926-4021; fws.gov/ refuge/cedar_island
Camden, Pasquotank and Gates counties
Mackay Island Refuge
(252) 926-4021; fws.gov/ refuge/mattamuskeet
Pea Island Refuge
Roanoke River Refuge
Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Wright Brothers National Memorial, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
Cape Lookout National Seashore
Merchants Millpond State Park
Pettigrew State Park