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Wednesday, 27 February 2008 00:00

Camping to return at Needmore

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When some 4,400 acres along the Little Tennessee River known as the Needmore Tract was taken over by the N.C. Wildlife Commission four years ago, a touch of the Wild West in WNC — complete with wholesome cattle ranchers and rough neck squatters — would soon come to a close.

The property was bought up decades ago by a power company with the intention of damming the river for a hydroelectric plant. That never happened, however, so the property was used by locals for farming, grazing cattle, hunting and camping.

“The property itself has been our community backyard for years,” said Cheryl Taylor, leader of a group called Mountain Neighbors for Needmore Preservation. “I enjoyed swimming in the river and roaming that place as a child. I know those that are older than I am have hunted and fished and camped that property.”

All that was jeopardized in 2000, when Duke Energy decided to sell the property for development. It took $19 million to wrest the acreage away from Duke, raised through a combination of state and federal grants and private donations. Everyone was glad the property wouldn’t be sold down the river to developers, but as an official state Game Land under the purview of the Wildlife Commission, changes were sure to come.

“I know people did not want to see it developed. That was the big monster facing us,” said Taylor, a champion of Needmore tract protection. “There are several who were very apprehensive about the state owning it. But it was the lesser of the two evils.”

Few argue that some oversight was needed, however. The unregulated property had attracted partiers and squatters, those who left trash piles of beer bottles and screamed around on their ATVs.

“It was totally uncontrolled, free-for-all camping — and it did need changing,” Taylor said. “The trash was tremendous. People were abusing their privileges. People would move a camper trailer in and live back there for six months.”

People even hauled toilets into the woods and straddled them over a ditch to serve as an outhouse.

“You just wouldn’t believe what we found down there,” Taylor said.

Partying was the big problem, said Joffery Brooks, an officer with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

“There were complaints about pot smoking and drinking, a lot of trash, just unsanitary conditions with bathrooms here and there and yonder,” Brooks said. “A lot of it was not very good types of camping.”

Camping was banned by the Wildlife Commission almost immediately. Of course, there had been good camping, too. Father-and-son hunting trips, July Fourth cookouts, families cooling off in the river on hot summer days.

Brooks said it wasn’t easy to tell people they couldn’t camp anymore. Some had been camping on the property for generations. In one case, a hunting club leased several dozen acres as their own private hunting camp. Game wardens enforced the camping ban gently at first, Brooks said.

“They didn’t go down there and start wrestling people out of there immediately,” Brooks said. “They didn’t go out there and snap the whip. A lot of it was going through and telling people they couldn’t do it anymore and about a year or two later they started writing tickets.”

Mountain Neighbors for Needmore Preservation soon went to work developing a plan for a formal campground to restore one of the traditional uses of the Needmore tract. The group pitched several plans until they finally arrived at one the Wildlife Commission could accept. (see related article for specific plans.)

“I cannot brag enough about how helpful and interested the Wildlife Commission has been on this project. They have been in the same boat as us because they had no idea what it would take to put a campground in down there,” Taylor said.

It’s the only Wildlife Commission property in the state that will allow a campground. The Wildlife Commission was willing to make the exception since camping was part of the tract’s history, Brooks said.

At times, the red tape was overwhelming, like the state’s requirement for an archeological survey. Another obscure rule: no campsite could be further than 300 feet from a bathhouse per county regulations. There were rules for septic tanks and wells, and an agreement to work out with Duke Energy to get power to the bathhouses.

“My hat is off to our board members who stepped outside their comfort zone to learn the logistics and particulars of undertaking such a project,” said Cathy Hildrith, a member of Mountain Neighbors for Needmore Preservation. Hildrith credited Taylor’s zeal and determination for moving the campground project along.

Taylor’s motivation was restoring the traditional enjoyment of the Needmore tract by the local community. Certainly backpackers passing through and families on a budget summer vacation will find their way to the Needmore campground.

“But the thrust has been that the people who live in the surrounding area will have a place to continue their enjoyment of the land,” said Hildrith.

What’s allowed at Needmore

Can Hike, Hunt, Fish, Mountain bike, Canoe, Kayak, Raft, Swim, Farm

Can’t Camp, Ride ATVs, Ride horses, Graze cattle

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