SPRING CREEK — Now halfway through the two-year closure order at the popular outdoor destination spanning the North Carolina and Tennessee border, Max Patch officials met to discuss the order's effectiveness and the park's future.
Officials gathered June 18 at Spring Creek Community Center for a potluck and slide presentation assessing the environmental impact of the closure order at the grassy bald known for its 360-degree views of the Pisgah National Forest's 4,629-foot summit.
In July 2021, the U.S. Forest Service implemented a number of rules designed to limit the land's degradation after overuse by visitors:
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Area closes one hour after sunset and reopens one hour before sunrise. Visitors are prohibited during closed hours.
Group size is limited to 10.
Dogs and other animals must be on a leash no longer than six feet, or in a crate or cage.
Visitors must stay on designated trails.
Aircraft may not land or drop off or pick up anything in the area. Drones are prohibited on the Appalachian Trail.
Bikes must stay on roads only.
Horses and other saddle and pack animals may not be ridden, hitched, tethered or hobble in the area.
In 1982, the U.S. Forest Service acquired Max Patch's 392 acres at the urging of Carolina Mountain Club, a nonprofit organization founded in 1923 and helps route and trail the Appalachian Trail. The club maintains 420 miles of trails in North Carolina.
Paul Curtin is the Appalachian Trail supervisor for Carolina Mountain Club and the trail ambassador leader. According to Curtin, the CMC trail ambassadors are volunteers who have been enforcing the closure order and meeting with Max Patch visitors to educate them and collect important data on hikers
Curtin said CMC members became increasingly conscious of Max Patch's degradation in 2017 and met with Jennifer Barnhart, a U.S. Forest Service ranger, as well as members of 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 composed of members of the U.S. Forest Service, Appalchian Trail Conservancy, Carolina Mountain Club and local residents.
Policing the restrictions/Visitors' use data
Barnhart said the all-volunteer trail ambassador team enforces the order's restrictions, working to also educate visitors on outdoor rules such as Leave No Trace.
"They're the ones that are messaging the closure order," Barnhart said. "If a law enforcement officer or a forest protection officer is available, then they'll be up at Max Patch talking with the visitors, but the trail ambassadors are the ones that help give the messaging. They explain what all is allowed and not allowed."
The trail ambassadors' three jobs are to "educate hikers, collect data and protect the resource," according to Curtin.
According to data from Carolina Mountain Club, the trail ambassadors estimate 5,925 people visited Max Patch in 2021, based on 2,808 conversations with visitors. According to the team's data, an annual maximum of 125 tents in place prior to the order, compared to only four tents in place since. Similarly, data revealed 70 fire rings before the order, compared to nine fire rings post-order. Prior to the order, 22,000 square feet of social trails marked the annual high, while the bald has seen a max of 9,000 square feet since the order.
Another closure order coming?
Using these numbers, along with the data collected by the Visitor Use Management committee that 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 that we have, the closure order has been extremely helpful in decreasing the resource impacts and allowing people to have a more enjoyable experience on the Appalachian Trail," Barnhart said. "I would recommend that we extend it, but again, that's not my decision."
Ultimately, that decision will be up to James Melonas, deputy supervisor with the U.S. Forest Service.
Curtin agreed with Barnhart, adding that he "absolutely" would recommend a closure order and stressed its effectiveness.
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"We'll definitely be fighting for that," Curtin said.
A September 2020 drone photo from Mike Wurman captured Max Patch being overrun by campers. The photo went viral and brought increased media attention to the bald, according to Curtin.
The trail ambassador leader said camping at the Max Patch summit is unnecessary when other more convenient and less environmentally harmful camps are available close by.
"The camping experience up there is not that great," Curtin said. "It's an open, exposed bald, and frequently the winds are very strong up there. It's not such a great place to be in a tent overnight. I think what we're going to probably wind up with is to have some designated areas that are within a half-mile to a mile of the bald. People can still go up there in the evening. There's no restriction on watching the sunrise or the sunset, and that's what a lot of people want to do. As far as spending the night up there, it's no better to spend the night up there than it is a half-mile away, and you're in a protected area with access to water, which you don't have up there. So, I don't think it really enhances the experience to allow camping on top. I think you can get the exact same experience with camping a short distance away."
Barnhart said the closure order's effectiveness was a "wonderful surprise," and emphasized the collaboration between the U.S. Forest Service, CMC and ATC, as well as the attention raised by volunteers and environmental advocates.
"It became national news when that misuse was really happening back in 2020," she said. "It's a very iconic location on the Appalachian Trail, and it's also in the backyard of Spring Creek community members. So a lot of Spring Creek Community members have joined the efforts and volunteered as being trail ambassadors too."
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," McVey said. "It is a safe place to go and spend an afternoon with family and friends."
Still, there's always more work to do, according to Curtin.
"We've made a lot of progress, but our work is not done," he said. "We're going to continue to run the trail ambassadors out there."
Barnhart and Curtin said increased parking and access to toilets are two main points of emphasis being discussed by officials moving forward.
"The end goal is to provide a hiking experience that the people that go out there want to have," Curtin said. "The vast majority of people want to go out there and enjoy the day up on top. They want to get beautiful scenery. They want to have a picnic, or throw a frisbee. We want that hiking experience preserved for the users that go out there."
This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Max Patch officials consider camping ban extension 1 year into closure