John Buntin is a GOVERNING staff writer. He covers health care, public safety and urban affairs.E-mail: email@example.com
It’s a tough time for state parks. But North Carolina, despite ranking 45th in per capita funding, increased its state park system’s size by more than 20 percent in the past seven years, thanks largely to Lewis Ledford, director of the state’s Division of Parks and Recreation.
Ledford, age 55, joined the division as a rookie ranger in 1976 and took over as director in 2003. A talented property hunter, he negotiated the purchases of two of the state’s most beloved landmarks: the 315-foot-tall Chimney Rock, as well as the 2,600-acre backcountry of Grandfather Mountain. All told, North Carolina has added six state parks, a state trail and six natural areas -- a total of nearly 40,000 acres -- while accommodating one of the largest population increases of any state.
Like other state parks departments, Ledford struggles with difficult budget cuts. But he insists that conservation pays, pointing to a 2008 study that puts the parks’ total contribution to the state at $400 million per year. “Trying to grow at the same time we’re paring back,” Ledford says, “it’s a difficult balance.” But it’s one he’s proven apt at. In 2009, North Carolina’s parks experienced a record 14.2 million visits, a 13 percent increase over the previous year.