Thursday, March 13, 2008

Daily Advance Article: Dismal Swamp State Park set to open

Dismal Swamp State Park set to open
Facility includes $2M visitor center, 16 miles of walking trails

Daily Advance - Staff Writer

Thursday, March 13, 2008

SOUTH MILLS — Area residents will soon be exploring the same terrain George Washington did in the 1700s when the nation's first president first visited what would later become known as the Great Dismal Swamp.

The new Dismal Swamp State Park in Camden County featuring 16 miles of biking and hiking trails and a new visitors center is slated to open to the public next week.

Located next to Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center on the west side of U.S. Highway 17 near the Virginia line, the park will officially open on Friday, March 21.

Behind the $2 million visitors center is a 14,344-acre swath of conservation land slated to become North Carolina's 32nd state public park.

To access it, pedestrians need to cross over the Dismal Swamp Canal via a new $1.2 million, 80-foot-long pedestrian floating bridge. The new bridge will open up 16 miles of trails that were created years ago but not accessible to the public.

Park Superintendent Joy Greenwood said the public trails are being developed on what were once logging roads. She said no motorized vehicles or all-terrain vehicles will be allowed on them.

"You can do mountain biking or hiking," she said during a sneak peak of the park for Camden and other local officials Wednesday. "It will be a pedestrian-and-bicycle access bridge access."

She said the trails are very easy to walk on.

"They are flat, fairly wide," she said. "We've had 18-wheelers drive down them."

The new 5,600-square-foot visitor center includes an exhibit hall system of boardwalks, deck, and gazebos.

Greenwood said the public could learn a lot about nature and the nation's history by visiting the new center.

"George Washington was one of the first people that came through this park and was looking into this whole area," she said. "You think about how far back that goes in our nation's history."

A 300-foot boardwalk extends out from the back of the new visitor center. With the help of a grant, state officials hope to extend it an additional 2,000 feet.

Camden County Manager Randell Woodruff was among those who toured the new site on Wednesday. He said the park could generate sorely needed economic development for Camden. He envisions that hotels and businesses might want to locate close to the new attraction.

"Probably some businesses will be popping up that will be running canoes, kayaks, and things like that," he said.

The property for the new park was acquired by the state in 1974 with the help of The Nature Conservancy and was managed as a state natural area without public access until 2007, when the General Assembly authorized it as Dismal Swamp State Park.

It is adjacent to the 111,000-acre Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The new park supports a large variety of migratory, neo-tropical birds and a significant number of butterflies. The land is rich in natural resources, including native strands of Atlantic white cedar and populations of black bear, bobcat, and deer.

"We see lot of whitetail deer and black bears. I've seen as many as five different black bears in one day," Greenwood said.

The visitor center features museum-quality exhibits, a classroom, reception area, and teaching auditorium designed for environmental education programming. Community meetings will also be held in the building. In fact, the Camden boards of commissioners and education were scheduled to hold a joint session in the building today.

Penny Leary-Smith, director of the Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center, said her facility would benefit by having the new park next door.

"We'll enhance each other," she said. "It will just be a great benefit to everybody."

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