By Dave Russell
As the number of boots hitting the forest floor grows, so does the environmental impact.
Wildlife encounters increase. More impromptu campsites and alternative, undesignated trails are created. Ferns, galax and other native plants get trampled. Litter multiplies.
“Loved to death” is a common phrase describing many wild areas all around the country.
It’s happening in Jackson County’s Panthertown Valley as more and more people discover it, according to Friends of Panthertown. The stewardship nonprofit works with volunteers to conserve and maintain the area’s trail system and has called for help in the form of being named a Hot Spot by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics.
They expect Leave No Trace staff to visit in August.
One of 14 sites nationwide to receive the designation, Panthertown will benefit from education, training and outreach offered by Leave No Trace.
“We wanted to have some help in the context of providing education and information regarding the use of Panthertown,” Friends of Panthertown Leave No Trace Master Educator Charly Aurelia said. “People are going to keep coming here, and we’d like to minimize the impact.”
Aurelia would like to address issues such as keeping hikers on designated trails. Hiking off trails can destroy native flora and lead to erosion issues.
Panthertown doesn’t have designated campsites, but there are places people regularly use spread throughout the valley. Aurelia wants to educate users to use the existing sites and stop making new campsites.
“One of the principles of Leave No Trace is to respect wildlife, and we want to teach how to do that in the context of Panthertown,” he said, citing bear/human encounters.
Leave No Trace will send traveling trainers to Panthertown for a week-long series of meetings, teaching and a volunteer activity, such as trail-building.
They will leave a presence.
“They’re going to come and provide further educational programs while they are here and then help shape that into the future,” Aurelia said. “We already have information at the two kiosks at the primary entrances to Panthertown. There will be more information there, and there is the potential for pamphlets.”
The seven Leave No Trace principles are:
• Plan ahead and prepare.
• Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
• Dispose of waste properly.
• Leave what you find.
• Minimize campfire impacts.
• Respect wildlife.
• Be considerate of other visitors.
Aurelia received his Leave No Trace master educator certification from Landmark Learning in the Cane Creek area.
“Landmark is one of the few places in the country that offer that training, and they are right here in Cullowhee,” he said. “They offered a scholarship so I could attend, so their support was instrumental in getting me certified and supporting the whole mission of Friends of Panthertown’s public education mission.
“We’ve got to be a little more proactive in education. We want to make Panthertown Valley and Friends of Panthertown synonymous with Leave No Trace principles.”
Leave No Trace usually picks about 15 Hot Spots each year, said Mitch Warnick, outreach manager for the Boulder, Colorado-based organization. About 100 agencies apply annually.
Two Hot Spots are in the Southeast this year – Panthertown and Paris Mountain State Park in Greenville, South Carolina.
To qualify for the Hot Spot program, the land must be protected and available to the public, such as national parks, state parks, U. S. Forest Service land and city parks, Warnick said.
“We have four groups of traveling trainers who carry out roughly 600 programs per year,” he said.
A team is scheduled to come to Panthertown Aug. 21-25.
“We try to have a variety of programs available at each one,” he said. “Some are more like strategic planning with the land managers, and we host educational programs for staff and the general public and volunteers or whoever is relevant to the field. We like to build in some kind of a community-rallying thing like a service project to include some volunteerism in there.”
Chosen Hot Spots receive the following from Leave No Trace:
● Consultation on solutions and program implementation from the center.
● A week-long set of programs led by expert Leave No Trace traveling trainers.
● Training workshops for volunteers, employees and key members of the community.
● Locally-tailored programs to meet site-specific needs.
● Leave No Trace educational materials.
● Volunteer citizen monitoring programs.
● Assistance in putting the Leave No Trace program into action.