‘Friends’ groups provide vital support for public lands

We all need friends, and public lands in Western North Carolina increasingly receive care in the form of “Friends” nonprofit groups. In an era of shrinking federal budgets for parks and forests, these organizations are stepping up to preserve and maintain public spaces.

“Friends groups used to be the margin of excellence; now they’re the margin of survival,” Sally Jewell, then-U.S. secretary of the interior, said in Tennessee in 2014.

As just one example of the decreased cash flow for public lands, the 2018 National Park Service budget request for operations is $2.2 billion, a drop of $143.8 million from 2017. Picking up the slack are Friends groups for public lands, nonprofit organizations that help a park or forest with funding and volunteers. Usually, such groups have a formal relationship with the official land manager, and informally they give people a chance to give back to the landscapes they enjoy.

Friends of the Smokies was created in 1993 to provide funds for that “margin of excellence,” says Anna Zanetti, North Carolina director of the group. “With increasing maintenance backlog and a rise in visitation that outpaces the federal budget, our funds now contribute to the more basic needs of Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” she says.

The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, which received more than 15 million visitors in 2016, gets a boost from the Asheville-based Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation. In 1997, its first year of operation, the foundation donated a few thousand dollars to the parkway; last year, it gave $1.2 million. Altogether the foundation has raised over $12 million in projects and programs.

Running through the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail extends over 1,100 miles across North Carolina, from Clingmans Dome in the Smokies to the Outer Banks. Friends of the MST, or FMST, is a statewide organization based in Raleigh with several board members living in WNC.

The Pisgah Ranger District, which extends 162,000 acres from Bent Creek west to the Middle Prong Wilderness, now has a champion in the Pisgah Conservancy. A newcomer to protecting national forests in the area, the Pisgah Conservancy was created in 2015 to provide funding to preserve the natural resources and beauty of Pisgah Ranger District and to enhance the recreational experience of all visitors.

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