SPRING CREEK — Now, halfway through the popular outdoor travel destination’s two-year closure on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, officials from Max Patch met to discuss the effectiveness of the order and the future of the park.
Officials gathered June 18 at the Spring Creek Community Center for a potluck and slide presentation evaluating the environmental impact of the closure order on the grassy bare spot used for their 360-degree views of the 4,629-foot summit of the Pisgah National Forest is well known.
The gathering was hosted by the Carolina Mountain Club, the US Forest Service and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
In July 2021, the US Forest Service introduced a set of rules to limit land degradation following overexploitation by visitors:
Read this:Science, summer reading and more! Plan your week ahead with WNC Parent
On the shelf:Summer reading abounds
- No Camping.
- No fire.
- The area closes one hour after sunset and reopens one hour before sunrise. Visitors are prohibited during closing times.
- Group size is limited to 10.
- Dogs and other animals must be kept on a leash no longer than two meters or in a crate or cage.
- Visitors must stay on designated trails.
- Aircraft are not allowed to land, take off or take off in the area. Drones are prohibited on the Appalachian Trail.
- No fireworks.
- Bicycles are only allowed to stay on roads.
- Horses and other mounts and pack animals may not be ridden, harnessed, tied or hobbled in the area.
In 1982, the US Forest Service purchased Max Patch’s 392 acres at the urging of the Carolina Mountain Club, a non-profit organization founded in 1923 that helps map and track the Appalachian Trail. The club maintains 420 miles of hiking trails in North Carolina.
Paul Curtin is the Appalachian Trail supervisor for the Carolina Mountain Club and the leader of the Trail Ambassador. According to Curtin, the CMC Trail Ambassadors are volunteers who enforce the closure order and meet with visitors to Max Patch to educate them and collect important data about hikers
Curtin said CMC members became increasingly aware of Max Patch’s deterioration in 2017 and met with Jennifer Barnhart, a US Forest Service ranger, as well as members of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy about the emerging issues.
In 2018, the group formed a Visitor Use Management team to collect data that will later be used in decision making and planning.
According to Barnhart, the Visitor Use Management Committee is made up of members from the US Forest Service, the Appalchian Trail Conservancy, the Carolina Mountain Club, and local residents.
Monitoring usage restrictions/visitor data
Barnhart said the all-volunteer Trail Ambassadors team enforces the order’s restrictions and works to also educate visitors about outdoor rules like leave no trace.
“They are the ones giving the order to close,” Barnhart said. “If an Enforcement Officer or Forest Service Officer is available, they will speak to visitors up at Max Patch, but the Trail Ambassadors are the ones who help get the message across. They explain what is allowed and what is not allowed.”
The three jobs of trail ambassadors, according to Curtin, are “educate hikers, collect data, and protect the resource.”
According to the Carolina Mountain Club, Trail Ambassadors estimate that 5,925 people visited Max Patch in 2021, based on 2,808 conversations with visitors. According to the team, a maximum of 125 tents were in use each year before the order was placed; since then, only four tents have been used. Similarly, the data showed 70 rings of fire before ordering compared to nine rings of fire after ordering. Before the order, 22,000 square feet of Social Trails marked the year’s high, while the bald has seen a maximum of 9,000 square feet since the order.
Another lockdown coming?
Using those numbers and data collected by the Visitor Use Management Committee, which meets monthly, Curtin and Barnhart will make a recommendation on whether to extend the closure order.
Barnhart said she would be in favor of another closure order.
“Based on the data we have, the closure order has been extremely helpful in reducing the resource impact and allowing people to have a more comfortable experience on the Appalachian Trail,” Barnhart said. “I would recommend that we extend it, but again that’s not my decision.”
Ultimately, that decision rests with James Melonas, Deputy Superintendent of the US Forest Service.
Curtin agreed with Barnhart, adding that he would “absolutely” recommend a closure order, emphasizing its effectiveness.
JetBlue:JetBlue begins summer service from Boston to Asheville to operate Thursday through Monday
Free money for property taxes:Grant program for homeowners expected to return by summer
“We’re definitely going to fight for that,” Curtin said.
A September 2020 drone photo by Mike Wurman showed Max Patch being overrun by campers. The photo went viral and gave the bald man increased media attention, Curtin said.
The Trail Ambassador leader said that camping at the Max Patch summit was unnecessary when other more convenient and less polluting camps were available nearby.
“The camping experience up there isn’t that great,” Curtin said. “It’s an open, exposed bald spot, and there’s often a very strong wind up there. It’s not a great place to stay overnight in a tent. I think we’ll probably end up having some designated areas for that are within half a mile to a mile of the bald head. People can still go there in the evening. There is no restriction to watch the sunrise or sunset and that is what many people want to do. As far as spending goes stay up there, no better way to spend the night up there than it’s a half mile away and you’re in a protected area with access to water you don’t have up there I think , it really improves the experience when you can camp at the top. I think you can get exactly the same experience by camping a short distance away.”
Barnhart said the effectiveness of the closure order came as a “wonderful surprise,” emphasizing the collaboration between the US Forest Service, CMC and ATC, and the attention that was drawn from volunteers and environmentalists.
“It became national news when this abuse really took place in 2020,” she said. “It’s a very iconic place on the Appalachian Trail, and it’s also in the backyard of members of the Spring Creek community. Many members of the Spring Creek community have joined the effort and volunteered to be trail ambassadors.”
Spring Creek resident Alice McVey serves as a Trail Ambassador at Max Patch.
“Max Patch is now a place that Spring Creek is proud of,” said McVey. “It’s a safe place to spend an afternoon with family and friends.”
Still, according to Curtin, there is still more work to be done.
“We’ve made great strides, but our work isn’t done yet,” he said. “We will continue to lead the trail ambassadors out there.”
Barnhart and Curtin said more parking and access to toilets are two key areas of focus being discussed by officials moving forward.
“The end goal is to provide a hiking experience that people who are out there want,” Curtin said. “The vast majority of people want to get out and enjoy the day upstairs. You want to experience beautiful scenery. They want to have a picnic or throw a Frisbee. We want to keep that hiking experience alive for the users who go out there.”