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A maze of pores and rock fractures in the Appalachian Mountains make it one of the most complex hydrological systems on the planet. More than half the population here relies on groundwater, but the fundamental question of how many wells the landscape can support remains a mystery.

It’s Dave Kinner’s favorite question for new geology students: how porous is the ground underfoot?

“Feel’s solid doesn’t it?” Kinner asked, stomping his foot up and down, making a flat, muffled thud as it hit the earth.

But in fact, 30 to 40 percent of what’s down there is water, seeping, trickling and percolating through the soil and rock layers — and hopefully, if we’re lucky, making its way to the tens of thousands of drinking wells that pepper the mountainsides of Western North Carolina.

“If we are going to be building more houses in this area, is there enough water for everybody?” asked Kinner, assistant geology professor at Western Carolina University. “At what point would they run out of water? That data is not really out there.”

WCU has emerged as ground zero in the field of groundwater research. An outdoor lab on a mostly wooded tract at the edge of campus sports a cluster of well heads poking up here and there, and in one spot, a tangle of wires sticking out of the soil and a rain gauge mounted on a stick.

While unassuming — particularly since most of the apparatus lies underground — the research is plowing new ground in the field of hydrogeology.

“We have some of the most complex rock types anywhere in the world,” said Brett Laverty, a hydrogeologist with the N.C. Division of Water Quality in Asheville. “We know very little about how groundwater moves in this area.”

And, as a result, very little about the carrying capacity for an increasing number of wells being drilled into the mountainsides.

Several summers over the past decade have brought drought conditions to Western North Carolina. Springs that flowed for generations suddenly dried up. Wells that had worked fine before suffered from low flows. New homeowners had to go deeper than ever before to find water.

Kinner hopes the research at WCU will figure out how much rain is actually making it through the top few feet of soil and into the underground aquifer.

Right now, the rate of groundwater “recharge” is a mystery, Kinner said. How quickly groundwater is replenished, compared to how quickly it is being used, is the fundamental question.

“Will it run out before it can recharge?” Kinner said.

The question attracted the interest of the National Science Foundation, which recently made a $200,000 grant to fund the ongoing project at WCU.

Luckily, recharge in the Appalachian mountains is rather quick, compared to underground aquifers in the Southwest that took thousands of years to accumulate but are being used up in a matter of decades.

But even in this temperate rainforest of the Smokies, groundwater isn’t an unlimited resource, and there are lots of variables at play that Kinner and his geology students are probing.

On steep slopes, rain tends to run off instead of soaking in.

Torrential downpours likewise run off instead of soaking in. And if the topsoil is hard and dry, absorption is even more subpar.

Unfortunately, few rains this past summer were the good slow soakers needed for recharge, according to the technical instruments monitored by Kinner and his students.

Rain gauges record both the amount of rain and how fast it comes down. Meanwhile, moisture sensors at various depths and a smattering of nearby test wells record how deep the rain is penetrating and whether it is actually reaching the groundwater table.

Kinner and his students will soon add their very own rain maker to the mix. A rainfall simulator, a homemade contraption sporting a shower head on a giant tripod hooked to a 200-gallon tank, can be maneuvered into place to test absorption on varying slopes and varying types of “rain.”


Below the surface

Mountain aquifers are defined by fractures, akin to ant tunnels in the rocks, ranging from visible veins to microscopic cracks.

How many — and how big they are — make or break a well.

“It is all about fractures. The more fractures you have in the bedrock intersecting a well, the more fractures you will find conveying that water,” Laverty said.

But the maze of fractures below the ground are completely random.

“A well driller who pulls up in your yard can’t say ‘I think the northeast corner will have more fractures than the southeast corner,’” Laverty said.

In the old days, a bucket lowered by a rope into a hand-dug well seemed to serve the early settlers fine. But that would hardly suffice today, not only because a shallow well like that is susceptible to contamination, but the water table at such shallow depths doesn’t have the volume or reliability modern households demand.

Wells drilled today are like a giant tube-shaped colander. The water seeps through tiny holes to fill the shaft. If the shaft doesn’t cross paths with the fractures and veins that carry water underground, however, it won’t fill up.

When that happens, drillers may turn to hydrofracking, which forces fractures in the rock to split open larger and pull more water into the well. This doesn’t always bode well for flow of other wells nearby, which can possible lose some of their pressure.

While WCU’s groundwater research will go a long way toward answering fundamental questions about how fractured rock aquifers behave in the mountains, it won’t tell us definitively, in each and every case, how many wells are too many. The geology is so site specific, that no single model that could be applied to all of Western North Carolina.

“The aquifers here are very dissected, and the fractures control everything here,” Laverty said.

But, if baseline data existed, carrying capacity could be calculated for a particular mountainsides.

“If you do have a subdivision in a particular watershed, you can start looking at that question,” Laverty said.

In Jackson County, groundwater recharge took a lead role in the debate over development regulations four years ago. The rules imposed a sliding scale for the size of house lots: the steeper the slope, the larger the lots have to be. The reasoning: on steep slopes, more surface area is needed to achieve adequate groundwater recharge, according to county planners at the time.

Unfortunately, climate change doesn’t bode well for groundwater recharge.

“One of the larger questions in terms of recharge is, as our climate changes, it will become drier overall and the rain we do have will be more intense,” Kinner said.

Laverty also believes the changing weather patterns of global climate change is bad news for groundwater recharge in the mountains.

“In the past we had rainfall that is spread out, good soaking rains, but now we are going to be seeing more heavy rains that come like a monsoon,” Laverty said.

Laverty said there’s a lot riding on groundwater aquifers in the mountains — around 50 percent of the population here has wells.

“If we have summers with prolonged droughts, a lot of communities could be in trouble. If your well runs dry where do you go?” Laverty said.

There are steps developers can take to help homeowners down the road capture rain and channel it into the ground rather than allowing it to run off. Things like rain gardens and bioswails collect rainfall and give it a chance to soak it before running down the mountain, Laverty said.

“If you want your little subdivision to survive and have enough water for everybody, that is something you need to take a look at,” Laverty said.


Amassing data, nurturing geologists

Kinner, along with Mark Lord, head of the WCU geology department, recently received a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to support their research.

All together, there are 40 wells of varying depth scattered across three plots on the WCU campus.

The wells were drilled last year courtesy of the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which is intensely interested in how mountain aquifers work.

The research also aims to understand how shallow groundwater moves laterally through the soil near creeks. Creeks, in essence, are an above ground manifestation of ground water. Creeks are far from static systems, coursing downhill irrespective of the subterranean groundwater around them.

In fact, groundwater not only moves through the soil into creekbed, but in some cases seeps back out of the creeks into the surrounding soil.

This transport of shallow water across soils is being monitored at many of WCU’s test well sites.

There’s another element to the groundwater research that has nothing to do with water, aquifers or hydrology. The geology professors are studying whether undergraduate research approached as a class helps students learn.

WCU has always been big on research. It is actually a requirement of all geology majors.

“The idea is students learn best if they are actually doing things,” Kinner said.

In the past, students undertook an individual research project for a semester, usually in their senior year. This project will engage students from intro to upper level courses, up and down the geology curriculum, allowing the professors to plug different classes in to the long-range research project.

“The grant will allow us to ask the question, ‘How do students at all levels of the geology curriculum benefit from research-based learning?’” Kinner said.

Research fellows will be hired to mentor students engaged in the project. But the applied science will serve a greater good as well.

“We are basically growing more geologists and hydrologists in this area to look at these questions,” Kinner said.

Aside from the occasional “welcome WCU students” signs, there isn’t much visible evidence in Sylva that signals more than 7,000 students have flooded this community for the start of school.

The town isn’t awash in purple, the school’s official color. You won’t see many images of catamounts, the university’s mascot, splashed about.

But despite the lack of an obvious welcome mat, the influx of students is a critical cog in Jackson County’s economic engine — and merchants and elected leaders here know that.

But it’s not always about the direct exchange of dollars. The economic ties between the university and community are often subtler than that.

At Rick’s Full Service Car Wash, Manager Mark Harwood relies on students for a workforce. And, as a general rule, he said, the students are simply stellar in that role.

“They do a great job for us,” he said, gesturing toward the car washers busy cleaning out a line of cars. “I love having them.”

Without WCU’s students, Harwood said he’d be hard pressed to find the dozen or so workers he needs to keep the 15-year business running. Students don’t usually have enough extra cash to get their cars cleaned here, he said, but they are vital to the car wash’s economic wellbeing nonetheless.

“With the economy the way it is, we are a bit of a luxury item,” he said.

At Super Wal-Mart in Sylva, displays cater to students and parents to shop for go-back-to-college items. That money returns to the community in the form of retail taxes.

“It’s a really big deal,” said Jackson County Commissioner Charles Elders of the economic ties between this county and the university.

Elders owns a gasoline station on U.S. 441 between Sylva and Whittier. Students headed west, or commuting in from outlying communities, help make up his business clientele, too — though gamblers headed to the Cherokee casino are even more important on a day-to-day basis, Elders said.

But at the Exxon service station on N.C. 107 in Sylva, students make up most of the business, and on this day WCU student and worker Samantha Talbert is rushing to keep up. It’s 9:30 a.m., and she oversees both the main cash register and drive-thru area.

Even at this early hour, people are driving though picking up six-packs of beer. It’s a Saturday, and people are eager to start their day of fun.

“It’s mostly locals during the day, and college kids at night,” Talbert said between customers.

Talbert eats at local restaurants and shops at local stores. Though she’s more frugal than many — she prefers to make her own meals most days, for health and economic reasons — Talbert still, like other WCU students, helps bolster Jackson County’s economy.

Western Carolina University is facing, at best, an austere financial year.

Chancellor David Belcher, in his first address to faculty and staff, was blunt about the financial difficulties facing the university. He warned his new employees that all spending would be scrutinized, and said they must fully and satisfactorily justify any new programs and course offerings, particularly electives.

The state, when all was said and done, cut WCU’s overall budget by 13.4 percent. While university leaders were prepared for an economic wallop, they were caught off guard by the sudden yanking of another $2 million they’d planned on. This happened when the state didn’t let universities use money left over from the previous budget year. The plan had been to use this carry-forward funding, as had been a usual financial practice at WCU, to help cover ongoing expenses, Belcher said.

Combine the $2 million with the other state cuts, and WCU found itself with a total $4.85 million overall deficit.  

“We cannot run a university this way,” the new chancellor said, explaining that the university’s top officials balanced the budget by whittling away at expenses. This included money set aside to maintain WCU’s information-technology infrastructure.

“Send your most positive thoughts to our IT system,” Belcher told his employees. “It cannot malfunction this year.”

Many in the crowd chuckled — and it really was a crowd, so many faculty and staff showed up for what is generally a beginning-of-the-year formality a balcony was opened in the fine and performing arts center’s auditorium to handle overflow. Belcher added in a serious tone: “No, I’m really not kidding.”

“The budget situation remains uncertain,” he said. “But I assure you that we will make it through these tough financial times.”

Belcher emphasized the need to raise enrollment numbers — which leads to increased state money and tuition money — but doing so while not lowering the caliber of students the university accepts. Additionally, with the state now heavily emphasizing retention and graduation rates, a shift in emphasis must take place, he said.

“Improving our retention rate is everybody’s responsibility,” he said.

But Belcher told faculty he wanted to shed his “reactionay mantle” that defined his first two months on the job. He planned now to throw himself headlong into crafting a new strategic plan for the university. The chancellor urged faculty and staff to join him in taking ownership of WCU.

“The strategic planning process is an opportunity to identify what we will pursue and what we will not pursue,” Belcher said. “In light of the current conditions, we cannot be all things to all people. Everything cannot and will not be a priority.”

The strategic planning process will be led by a steering committee called the 2020 Commission, and will include participation from various stakeholders on campus, such as faculty, staff and students. And, he said, from the external community – alumni, donors, and business and community leaders.

The target is to have a plan ready for presentation to the Board of Trustees at its June meeting 10 months from now.

“Achievement of such a plan will require rejection of myopia and commitment to the good of the whole,” Belcher said. “We will be guided by our commitment to student success – the success of every student. And we will retain that value that has defined us for years, an external focus and external engagement.”

Belcher announced the formation of the Chancellor’s Leadership Council, a group composed of about 40 campus leaders from the faculty, staff, student body and administration.

He also unveiled a more inclusive budgeting process designed to provide additional input into decision-making and enhance transparency. That process will include an annual budget hearing that will involve the newly formed leadership council. Belcher also asked Faculty Senate and Staff Senate to consider the creation of a joint budget and planning committee to ensure that faculty and staff concerns are integrally involved in the budget process.

Between the two of them, daughter Alison “Ali” Howie is clearly holding up better than her mother, Paula Dennis.

“I’m an emotional wreck,” Dennis openly admits after queuing up her vehicle in front of Scotts Dorm. Her husband, Howie’s stepfather, pulls up behind her — Dennis laughs a bit when it’s gently pointed out that her daughter has supplies enough to sustain her through a doctorate degree, not just a single year of college.

Bottled water. Shampoo. Sheets and blankets. Laundry detergent. Snacks. Cleaning items. Clothing. Books. Pens and paper.

It’s move-in day for freshman at Western Carolina University, and Howie is one of 1,450 freshmen and first-year students enrolled for classes. The cars and trucks, and yes even a few U-hauls, stretch in lines as far as the eye can see.

“We’ve been planning and buying for the past three weeks. Well, really, all summer,” Dennis says.

Howie, a self-described “very independent, very organized” 18-year-old from the Mount Pleasant area, hands off a tidily labeled box to a man in shorts with a baseball cap turned around on his head. There’s a lot of help on freshman move-in day at WCU. Professors and staff have turned out in force to ensure their new charges enjoy these first moments on campus.

“You earn brownie points for the labels,” the man says pleasantly. Howie just nods in brief acknowledgement, not yet realizing that this extra pair of arms belongs to WCU’s new chancellor, David Belcher.

SEE ALSO: Faculty packs overflow balcony to hear new chancellor’s opening address

Howie, if she’s nervous, isn’t showing it. She’s got one thing on her mind: maintaining at least a 3.6 grade point average as a nursing major. And that’s one of the main reasons this academically minded young woman chose WCU — because when you get right down to it, there’s not many distractions to be found.

There’s no college scene — nothing close to the much-ballyhooed Athens, Ga., or iconic Chapel Hill — not even a Boone-for-Appalachian State type college town.

In fact, there’s no town at all in Cullowhee, unless you count the handful of businesses that make up the “Catwalk” near the center of campus — a few restaurants, a bank and a laundromat. Or on old Cullowhee road, a tattoo parlor, a hair salon, and a car body shop.

This isolation suits Howie just fine.

“I can drive to Asheville if I really want all that,” she says. “That’s part of the reason I like it.”


Numbers alone no longer count

The University of North Carolina system is changing how universities are allotted money. It’s no longer just about sheer enrollment numbers — more students equal more dollars, so round ‘em up, cowboy. Instead, in the name of accountability, the state is increasingly eyeing retention and graduation rates.

The graduation rate is the percentage of people actually graduating from college. The retention rate, on the other hand, is something that reflects the student body’s overall interest in what’s being offered by the college — the number of students who start at that school who go on to the next year, or years, at the same college.

The student retention rate at Western Carolina University stands at 74 percent, with Belcher recently noting the school needs to pay particular attention to the freshmen-to-sophomore retention rate.

The graduation rate at WCU is low, at an estimated 28 percent in 2010 for fourth-year students, at 46.8 percent for fifth-year students, and 51.6 percent for sixth-year students.

Former Chancellor John Bardo, who retired this summer, often blamed retention and graduation problems, in part at least, on the lack of a college town here at Cullowhee. There’s simply nothing to keep students on campus or coming back each year, according to this theory. In the absence of a college town, Bardo suggested the university build one itself. He forged a vision in his final year for a “town center” built on campus and then leased to restaurants, shops and the like. His plan included a strategy for legalizing alcohol sales for the new “town center,” another aspect of student life now lacking.

As Bardo maintained, the lack of a hip college scene might well feed into university’s graduation shortcomings. But it’s equally clear from incoming freshman that WCU also attracts many students — such as Howie — because of the rural, intimate, anti-urban feel of the campus.

The town center plans have gone on hiatus with the arrival of a new chancellor. And, given the possibility of Jackson County voters next May legalizing countywide alcohol sales — which would suddenly make Cullowhee an attractive market for new restaurants and bars — the very need for a university-driven “town center” might prove unnecessary.

“I like that it isn’t too big,” says Hannah Wallis-Johnson, an incoming freshman from Asheville who is following her mother, Sharon Wallis, to WCU as a student.

Sharon Wallis commutes to WCU in pursuit of a pre-nursing degree; she persuaded her daughter to give this Jackson County university a hard look.

SEE ALSO: Students — and their wallets — return to Jackson County

Wallis-Johnson did just that, and to her surprise (who really wants one’s mother to be proven right, after all), found she loved it: few distractions to disrupt academics, and just an hour’s drive from all the fun in her hometown. That means she can actually drive home for dinner with family, or to entertainment with friends in Asheville, whenever she wants.

“Here, you have to make an actual decision to go out,” Wallis-Johnson says, citing what some might view as void as, instead, a positive.


First-day jitters

Across the hall, Allison Cathey of Haywood County chose WCU for similar reasons. Familiarity with the mountains, in her case, too, didn’t breed contempt — she loves them, and says she never plans to leave them.

Cathey graduated from Haywood Community College, and is excited about this nearby transfer to WCU. She shakes her head when talking about WCU skeptics, those who maintain the school should offer its students a full plate of fun to go with an academic diet.

“The people who say there’s nothing to do in Cullowhee — well, that’s silly,” Cathey says. “I don’t think a town center is really necessary.”

Mother Doris Cathey adds that while she wouldn’t have attempted to influence her daughter’s college choice, WCU is, in fact, the only university her daughter applied to attend.

“This is where she wanted to go,” she says.

“This is where I want to be,” Allison Cathey emphasizes.

On the next floor up in Scotts Dorm, Bryce Hedrick looks and acts nervous. He openly admits to a full-blown case of the jitters — Hedrick, from Thomasville, worries about doing well in his classes.

His mother, Shannon Hedrick, says this is the first time her son has really been away from home.

“This is a big deal,” she says, adding that she’s happy with her son’s decision to attend WCU.

“I like the fact that they seem so focused on the education of the kids,” Shannon Hedrick says.

Her son, like the other freshmen, is enthusiastic about WCU. Many of his friends went to East Carolina University, but Bryce Hedrick says he welcomes the relative isolation of his new home.

“I just really felt like I could focus better here,” he says in explanation.

Western Carolina University and the Cullowhee area could prove the decisive battleground in the coming debate about whether alcohol sales should be legal countywide in Jackson, and not just confined to the towns of Sylva and Dillsboro.

Ikran Mohamed, hurrying to class one day last week, said that when it comes to whether she believes the sale of alcoholic beverages would hurt or help Cullowhee and student life in general at Western Carolina University, she might be speaking while under the influence of the history paper she was carrying to class.

Her paper was on the history of drug addiction and trafficking in the U.S., including alcohol — and Mohamed’s findings weren’t positive. Only a light drinker herself, the Charlotte native said she believes (at least this morning, the paper in hand and fresh on her mind) that it might well be best if the sale of alcoholic beverages remains confined to neighboring Sylva.

“If it’s closer to campus, it’s easier to get,” the rising junior said, adding that she has particular concerns about underage drinking escalating on campus if beer and wine could be purchased at package stores, bars and restaurants in Cullowhee.

Next year, Jackson County voters will get to decide on the issue of countywide alcohol sales. Only two counties in the mountains, Buncombe and Clay, currently allow the sale of beer, wine or liquor outside town limits. Henderson County voters, like Jackson residents, get to vote on the issue next year.

A majority of Jackson County commissioners confirmed last week that they plan to put the question to voters on the ballot next year, either during the May primary or the November election.

The area of the county most likely to experience profound changes if the referendum passes is Cullowhee. Before his retirement earlier this summer, then Chancellor John Bardo pushed for the neighboring Village of Forest Hills to annex part of campus, vote in the sale of alcoholic beverages, and help him create an actual college town where students could find more to do at night than get a tattoo.

Because these days, unless they head up the road to Sylva, a tattoo parlor is about the only thing open near campus past 9 p.m.

“Exactly — that’s it,” said Philip Price, a nursing student from Raleigh and a rising junior. “But I don’t really care. I’m not too much of a drinker.”

Neither is Perry Fotopoulos, an environmental health major with a concentration in pre-med, who hails from nearby Franklin. In fact, Fotopoulos doesn’t drink at all. But he believes that it’s unrealistic to think most students won’t drink, because most do — “and it would be a little safer” if they didn’t have to drive to imbibe at a bar, Fotopoulos said.

That’s important to Eileen Calvert, too, who for the last 15 years or so has been busy giving students and faculty at WCU haircuts at her Cullowhee salon, Hairport.

“It’s ridiculous they don’t have beer here,” Calvert said, who lived for a time in Athens, Ga., where there is an active and vibrant campus nightlife for students at the University of Georgia to experience. “And, it’s inconvenient you can’t buy it here. There would be a lot less leaving this community to party if there were beer, and it would keep money here in our own town.”

A new strategic plan for Western Carolina University will include ideas and voices from the local community, new Chancellor David Belcher promised Jackson County’s town and county leaders.

In a wide-ranging address at a breakfast gathering held late last week at the county’s senior center, Belcher spoke on themes of cooperation, partnership and engagement. He said Jackson County’s residents could rely on him and his wife, Susan, to be visible and active members of the community.

“You are going to see us out in the community because we want to be part of the community,” said Belcher, who started in his new role July 1. “We know that WCU does not exist in a vacuum. We are a part of Jackson County, and Jackson County is a part of us. Whatever we do, we need to do together. We don’t want you to consider us that monster down the street. We want you to consider us part of you.”

Belcher took over from Chancellor John Bardo, who retired this summer after 16 years in the top university post. Belcher came to Cullowhee after serving as provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Strategic planning will start this fall and take up to a year to complete. The new chancellor is familiar with the process: he completed two such plans for the University of Arkansas, one just a few days before he made the move to Western North Carolina.

“My planning processes never stop at the edge of campus,” Belcher said. “We must go out into the community to get input from our external partners. We want our community partners talking with our people on campus about their vision for the university. …We take this very seriously, because you have as much at stake in the university as we do.”


Shaky relations

The relationship between WCU and Jackson County at large could be described as strained at best.

Bardo, though he took steps during his long tenure to strengthen ties with the surrounding community, at times came in for criticism on that point, too: for not participating in day-to-day local affairs, for being absent on important political issues taking place in the university’s home county of Jackson and, most often heard, for reportedly spending much of his time at a second home in Raleigh.

Despite his critics, Bardo took some concrete measures. With Sylva, for example, by bringing WCU’s homecoming parade back to downtown in 1996 — it had pulled out in the mid-1950s.

Danny Allen, a Sylva commissioner, said the relationship between the town and WCU is very important, and that the two entities “could both benefit the other.” Allen said he believes the student population at WCU is a great, untapped economic resource for Jackson County, and that he’d specifically like to see a small shopping outlet built that targets the 9,000 student-body population.

It will take work to improve the relationship between WCU and the greater community, which has “been bad at times,” said Suzanne Stone. Owner of the Cullowhee restaurant Rolling Stone Burrito and a member of the Village of Forest Hill’s town board,

Stone said she was optimistic about Belcher, saying he seems sincere in his efforts to improve relationships off campus. Stone said the new chancellor responded within 10 minutes to a welcoming email sent from a collection of business owners along what’s known as “The Catwalk” in Cullowhee, a gesture she said she and the others on the strip greatly appreciated.

Stone said the business owners are specifically interested in developing some kind of card for students to encourage them to patronize local businesses. The CatCard, the official WCU identification card, also serves as students’ meal-plan card through Aramark Dining Services, so that’s not a viable option for other establishments.

“We, too, want to talk about developing a relationship,” Stone said of Belcher, “and we would love to talk with him about the future of Western and our role going forward.”


What about that Town Center?

Bardo drew the ire of some local business owners and buy-local proponents by pushing for franchise-type establishments to come into Cullowhee.

Belcher, in a separate interview with The Smoky Mountain News, said “my own preferences are for the unique,” and that he has “no predisposed feelings about building this campus community with a bunch of chains.”

Still, that’s what must be decided during a visioning process that he’s promising will include people from the community, Belcher said.

Bardo had developed a schematic and vision for a 35-acre commercial development on campus he called “Town Center.” Bardo pictured a built-from-scratch college town with buildings that would be leased to restaurants, coffee shops, bookstores and even a specialty-style grocery store.

The new chancellor did emphasize that targeting specific businesses and exact enterprises for recruitment falls outside what he considers the purview of his job as WCU’s top leader.

Also up for debate is the role of Forest Hill, a small town across the highway from campus, in the plans for Town Center.

Bardo had asked leaders of Forest Hills to expand its town limits to include the property where Town Center would be built. The major reason: to allow businesses populating the new Town Center to sell alcohol. Alcohol sales currently aren’t allowed in Cullowhee, since the county is dry and Cullowhee isn’t its own town.

But Forest Hills is, and Bardo saw it as, the ticket for Town Center’s development. He wanted Forest Hills to legalize alcohol sales, then annex the site for Town Center, paving the way for the type of restaurants and bars usually associated with a college campus.

The university might no longer have a need for Forest Hill’s help, however. County commissioners have announced plans to hold a countywide vote on whether to legalize alcohol sales across the county in 2012. (See story on page 10.)

Clark Corwin, a council member for Forest Hills, said the small, incorporated village located cheek to cheek with WCU “backed off” the project once Bardo announced his resignation. The town has scheduled a retreat at the end of September to conduct its own visioning process, Corwin said.

Belcher, for his part, said he’s not yet “in any position at this point to throw any of those ideas out, or embrace them.”


Want to meet the new chancellor?

Western Carolina University Chancellor David Belcher will meet with alumni and friends from Jackson County from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 2, in the new Jackson County Public Library in Sylva.

It is the first stop on a “get acquainted tour” that will take WCU’s new chief executive officer to 15 stops during a four-month span, from Cherokee and Bryson City to Atlanta and Charlotte.

The tour is designed to assist Belcher in the process of crafting a vision for the next phase of development for the university by soliciting ideas and input from alumni, benefactors, legislators and community leaders. The sponsor of the Sylva event is MedWest Health System. 828.227.2455 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to RSVP.

The General Assembly’s budget would cut funding for a professional development center for teachers in Cullowhee by nearly half what it was allocated last year, slashing the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching from $6.1 million to $3.1 million.

Leaders at NCCAT stopped short of declaring that such a sizeable cut would force them to shutdown. But they do say that without additional funding, the 25-year-old institution will have to severely cut back on services. NCCAT and its 82 full-time and part-time employees, to a large degree, will have to transform, and quickly, to survive into the future.

A likely short-lived reprieve came with Gov. Beverly Perdue’s veto this week of the Republican-crafted $19.7-billion budget. Perdue’s proposed budget had called for only a 10-percent cut to NCCAT and the elimination of eight positions.

On the heels of ever-dwindling state backing the past few years, even Perdue’s proposed cuts would have been difficult to absorb, said NCCAT Executive Director Elaine Franklin. She left her job at Western Carolina University in April to oversee this neighboring institution.

Since July 2008 and not including this current fiscal year, NCCAT has seen its funding cut $1,886,821 by the state.

Perdue is unlikely to win her budget battle with the Republican-controlled legislature over the budge. NCCAT could join the ranks of casualties brought on by diminished state funding, with little time to plan or make requisite program changes. Franklin said that would severely damage NCCAT, and disregard the 25-year investment into it that the state’s taxpayers have made.


‘Vitally important,’ or boondoggle?

Supporters tout NCCAT’s ability to help keep thousands of pre-kindergarten through 12th grade teachers in the state’s classrooms. Envisioned and pushed through by then Gov. Jim Hunt in 1985, at its height about 5,000 teachers a year came to either Cullowhee or to its smaller sister campus in Ocracoke for seminars and programs. The number in the past few years has been closer to 2,800 teachers, a cutback that is the visible result of dwindling funds.

The programs are interdisciplinary, targeting the environmental and biological sciences, technology, humanities, arts, communication and health.

The teachers who attend NCCAT are transformed professionally and seem visibly reenergized about teaching in the state’s classrooms, said Regina Ash, director of instruction for Swain County Schools.

“NCCAT is important to our teachers, and because of that, I think it is vitally important to our students,” said Ash this week. Her duties include overseeing professional development for Swain County’s educators.

Ash said one of the most critical services NCCAT provides is helping to underscore that teachers are important, and to give them visible evidence that others value them as professionals. The seminars are free, and NCCAT (via state dollars) has even paid for substitute teachers to take over during teachers’ absences.

That type of spending, however, goes to the crux of the criticism NCCAT has attracted in such lean economic times as these. And so does the very appearance of NCCAT, a stunning facility that features state-of-the art equipment and such perks as a small fitness center. On the walls hangs a large modern art collection — never mind that it’s on permanent loan, and cost nary a taxpayer penny; “boondoggle” is the word some have used. Staff at NCCAT still feel the sting of an article published in 2009 by the right-leaning Carolina Journal, a Raleigh-based publication targeting North Carolina’s political scene. Headlined “Teacher Paradise in Jackson County Attracts Scrutiny,” the reporter noted:

“… the center’s rambling stone buildings and finely manicured landscaping could be mistaken for that of an upscale mountain resort. And it offers a range of amenities to match. The grounds feature an idyllic lake, nature trails, and garden complete with covered picnic tables, benches, and fountain. A detached lodge has 48 individual living quarters and includes private bathrooms, common areas with access to outdoor patios, kitchens stocked with snacks, wireless Internet, and even a Hershey’s Kiss on each teacher’s pillow in the morning.”


Fighting for NCCAT

Given the harshness of NCCAT’s detractors, the names of some of its supporters might just surprise you. Numbered in the institution’s fan base? That fiscal conservative, no-apologies-for-it, newly elected Republican member of the state legislature, Sen. Jim Davis of Franklin.

Davis recently toured the NCCAT facility in Cullowhee. He heard and believes the pitch staff there make: that an investment in NCCAT is an investment in the state’s teachers, and one that pays off big for the children of North Carolina.

NCCAT reports a 96.9 percent average annual retention rate for teachers who participate in the professional development it offers. This compares to 87.9 percent statewide and 83.2 percent nationally from 2004 through 2007.

But hard times result in hard choices, Davis said while back in his home district this past weekend and in Sylva to attend the new library grand opening. NCCAT was lucky to get even $3.1 million, said Davis, who voted for the budget that cut NCCAT’s funding.

“It was a fight,” Davis said, adding that he believes anybody who actually takes the time, as he did, to “go out there and see it, and find out what they really do” will come away “convinced it is a good program.”

So what does the future hold for NCCAT? That’s difficult to say right now, because planning in these uncertain times is practically impossible, said Tina Wilson, director of business services.

“How can we plan?” Executive Director Franklin asked rhetorically.

One simply does the best one can, added Peter Julius, an NCCAT center fellow who helps design programs, and a former Swain County teacher. Programs are usually planned out six months ahead; Julius is simply warning people that everything hinges on the final state budget.

Franklin believes NCCAT, if it can claw up from that $3.1 million in state funding, can still survive and prosper.

“We do fully realize that this is a difficult budget for North Carolina,” she said. “(But an additional infusion of dollars) would give us the time to do better planning, strategic planning.”

And transform the institution into what must become NCCAT’s future, she said: an organization that relies on private fundraising to pay portions of the bills. Franklin said she has no doubts that NCCAT supporters will open their billfolds and wallets to ensure the institution stays afloat.

But NCCAT must, she said, have a bit of wiggle room to make that transition.

“A dog is an amazing thing,” says Orval Banks, smiling wryly and adjusting his faded gray ballcap.

He’s explaining the techniques he uses to train dogs, but really, he says, you don’t train a dog. It knows what it’s doing, and you’re just teaching it to communicate with you and teaching yourself to understand its subtle language. Because, you see, a dog is an amazing thing.

Banks runs a company called Southern Pride Search and Rescue Dogs, so he knows something about dogs.

He’s a wizened character, in plaid shirt and jeans, whose name often gets mistaken for Wilbur. He’s not sure why. He’s pretty soft-spoken but knows more than most in his field about what makes a good search dog.

“Train, train, train,” says Banks, chuckling slightly.

And he’s been training dogs now for more than 20 years. His dogs are cross-trained, both in search and rescue and what law enforcement refer to as search and recovery, when they’re looking for remains instead of people.

Rescue, though, says Banks, is his first job.

“I like to get them trained on finding the live people first because that’s a priority. Dead people are not going anywhere,” says Banks.

Still, though, recovery of remains are accounting for more and more of his calls these days, around 50 percent.

Banks isn’t a Haywood County native — he was born in Yancey County and moved around in his younger days — but he’s lived here now for 35 years, and it was 40 years ago that he got into search and rescue, mostly as a volunteer.

A few weeks ago, Banks helped out at a training day for cadaver dogs and their handlers held at Western Carolina University, though he’s loathe to use the word ‘cadaver,’ favoring the less abrasive ‘human remains detection.’

Unlike a lot of that crowd, and the cadaver dog world generally, he’s not from a law enforcement background. He keeps at it four decades later for the love of finding that which was lost.

“If you ever find a little four-year-old kid that’s been out there a couple of days and it’s getting dark, and the temperatures are about freezing, it makes it all worthwhile, you get kind of hooked on it,” says Banks.

And he’s good at it, too, which he puts down to the intensive amount of training that he does with his dog, about twice a week.

“There’s a lot of people that don’t train but once every two or three months and then wonder why they never find anybody,” says Banks. “Every time you go out with your dog, you learn something about your dog.”

The training at WCU was held at the school’s Human Identification Lab.

They used to call it the body farm, but now they stick to FOREST, which stands for Forensic Osteology Research Station. Basically, it’s a place for scientists to study how the human body deteriorates under certain conditions. And it’s only the second of its kind in the country, so when it offers a workshop for cadaver dogs, it’s a pretty popular draw.

They had to turn away 27 handlers who wanted to bring their dogs.

“They get the opportunity that they don’t ever get anywhere else, of letting their dogs see a full cadaver,” says Banks. “It’s good to expose the dog to that, to put everything in perspective to the dog, [to say], ‘OK, this is what you’ve been looking for the whole time.’”

And, says Paul Martin, who helped run the workshop, the scent of real people is different than what you can train on elsewhere.

“You have the ability to work with scents you’d never have the ability to do,” says Martin. He, unlike Banks, comes from a law enforcement background, but agrees with him that much of training is about learning the dog, and letting the dog learn the handler.

“Part of it is identifying the animal behavior patterns,” says Martin.

Banks agrees.

“The biggest problem is that a lot of handlers don’t train enough to be able to read their dogs. You’re teaching a dog and teaching yourself to communicate with each other. The dog knows what he’s doing. A lot of people think they’re teaching a dog to smell something dead,” said Banks, but they’re really learning to notice when the dog does.

According to Martin, things have changed in the field over the last ten years. Human remains detection, or HRD, is becoming more in-demand.

“The specialty has evolved over the last 10 to 15 years,” says Martin. “It’s such a complex field. We’re asked to find the one drop of blood, to find the remains that have been buried for 10 years, to find the remains that have been scavenged.”

And, like Banks said, half his work now is in HRD, because, he says, it’s just a lot harder to get lost these days.

“About 12, 15 years ago, we were at the peak, we were doing about 100 [search and rescue] callouts a year,” says Banks. “But people are starting to get GPS units, cell phones, and there’s getting to be so many people in the woods, you have to work at getting lost anymore.”

There are those now, he says, who are getting in to the field for the wrong reasons — for the prestige, for a certificate that they feel somehow validates their dog for breeding — but many, like himself, are in it to help.

And after 40 years of searching and 20 years with a dog by his side, he doesn’t think that’ll change anytime soon.

Backpackers who take on the challenge of hiking in the Southern Appalachian Mountains can attest to the fact that hauling a pack up a steep mountain trail is much more difficult than carrying one on level ground, and some Western Carolina University faculty members and students have put that notion to the test.

A study that involved volunteers carrying a pack while walking on a treadmill set on an uphill grade was used to test the “energy mile” theory first proposed by the late American mountaineering legend Paul Petzoldt. Overseeing the project was Maridy Troy, an assistant professor in WCU’s health and physical education program, and Maurice Phipps, professor of parks and recreation management, who also knew Petzoldt as a friend and mentor.

Phipps first met Petzoldt and found out about his energy mile theory in 1982, when Phipps, a young immigrant from England, went on a Wilderness Education Association training trip in Wyoming’s Teton Mountains that was led by the renowned outdoorsman.

Petzoldt first proposed his theory in his 1976 book Teton Trails to help backpackers plan trips and calculate their energy needs on mountain trails. “Petzoldt defined one energy mile as the energy required to walk one mile on the flat. He recommended adding two energy miles for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain, so a person hiking one mile and 1,000 feet upward would use the equivalent of three energy miles,” Phipps said.

Petzoldt’s energy mile theory was just a reflection of the mountaineer’s “gut feeling,” Phipps said. The theory had never been tested in a laboratory before the study began in WCU’s Exercise Physiology Laboratory in the spring of 2010, Phipps said.

To determine the validity of the theory, the study measured the energy cost and perceived exertion for walking on flat ground, with and without a 44.5-pound backpack, and up an elevation gain of 1,000 feet, with and without the backpack, through the collection of metabolic data, Phipps said.

Twenty-four student, faculty and staff volunteers, including 12 males and 12 females, went through four testing sessions as the research continued into fall semester of 2010. The study results showed that the additional energy cost for ascending 1,000 feet ranged from 1.34 to 2.02 energy mile equivalents, for an average of about 1.6 miles, compared to Petzoldt’s use of two energy miles for each 1,000 feet. The range revealed by the study was due to the “hikers’” personal weight differences, Phipps said.

“It is remarkable that Petzoldt’s energy mile theory is so close to the actual energy cost measured during our study,” Phipps said. “In the field of outdoor education, it’s important for leaders to include an estimation of energy requirements during the planning of hiking trips.”

Phipps said the energy required for hiking up steep mountain trails would vary for individuals and groups, and the variables of the trail would also factor in, but he recommends that backpackers stick with Petzoldt’s idea of adding two energy miles for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain when planning trips.

Petzoldt, the founder of the National Outdoor Leadership School who is considered to be the father of outdoor education in the United States, later amended his theory, stating that 1,000 feet of elevation gain is equivalent to four miles worth of energy for trail novices with expedition packs in the Tetons. Petzoldt suggested adding three energy miles — instead of two — per 1,000 feet of elevation gain in the North Carolina mountains when he visited the WCU campus to teach a WEA expedition course in 1987, Phipps said.

An article detailing the study titled “The Validity of Petzoldt’s Energy Mile Theory” has been published in the Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education and Leadership.

After a decade-and-a-half of stable leadership — a situation almost unheard of within the greater University of North Carolina system —Western Carolina University is about to embark on a whirlwind of change.

In addition to the replacement of Chancellor John Bardo by David Belcher of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, who starts July 1, a bevy of top positions at the university are filled, for now, only on an interim basis. This includes the provost (WCU’s second in command) and the university’s vice chancellor of administration and finance.

Also coming open? Six of the 13 members of the WCU Board of Trustees are up for appointment or reappointment. This includes Chairman Steve Warren and Vice Chairman Charles Worley, who have served two- and four-year terms respectively on the board, meaning they cannot be reappointed as trustees.

The governor gets four appointments; the UNC Board of Governors appoints eight of the trustees, plus the president of the student government is automatically placed on the board.

This board of trustees and Bardo met for the final time last week. In an emotional meeting that left Warren and Bardo, at times, choking back tears, the outgoing chancellor said he truly believes WCU’s best days are before it.

“These 16 years (as chancellor) represents a quarter of my life,” Bardo said. “This was about trying to make a difference in lives of people.”

The average tenure of a UNC chancellor is four-and-a-half years.

Warren spoke of Bardo’s “incredible vision” that transformed “the spirit of the campus.”

“Everything we ever wanted for this university is now within our reach — everything,” Warren said.

To honor Bardo, the board of trustees voted to name the university’s Fine and Performing Arts Center after the retiring chancellor.

In a related matter, Faculty Senate Chairman Erin McNelis told the board of trustees that this faculty leadership group would consider a resolution for more openness when it comes to a chancellor search.

This resolution would seek for the finalists’ names to be made public, so that the final selection would become “an open process,” she said. This is routinely done in many states, but North Carolina allows universities to opt to keep chancellors’ searches secret.

Page 27 of 40

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