Long-overdue upgrades on tap for Nags Head Woods

By on March 21, 2016

View from the visitor center: Duckweed glistens on a pond in the Nags Woods Preserve. (Catherine Kozak)

Everyone loves Nags Head Woods for its shaded walking trails and quiet solitude. But it’s a good guess that numerous visitors during its 30-plus years of existence also fault it for what it’s never had: outdoor-accessible bathrooms and water fountains.

A fundraising campaign launched recently by The Nature Conservancy, the nonprofit owner of Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve, is aimed at sprucing up and modernizing the 1,200-square-foot visitor center and the 800-square-foot conference room building at the Woods’ entrance in Kill Devil Hills.

And yes, plans include handicapped-accessible drinking water fountains and restrooms.

It’s the first full-scale renovation of the functional-but-outdated wooden structures, tucked off a gravel parking lot at the end of Ocean Acres Drive.

“These buildings were built in the 1980s,” says Aaron McCall, the Conservancy’s Northeast Regional Steward. “Over time, we’ve done some small renovations and some general upkeep . . . We’re not looking at starting from scratch. We’re looking to utilize what we already have.”

McCall said Nags Head Woods is the only Conservancy preserve in the state that owns its buildings.
Through the large glass windows in the meeting room, a duckweed-covered pond glistened bright green, making the still water reminiscent of a huge pool table. The trail head leading to six trails into the woods, offering hikes of varying distances, begins right off the wooden deck connecting the buildings.

The proposed $375,000 multi-phase Nags Head Woods Conservation Center project will bring the buildings up to code by opening up the layout and making them handicapped accessible. Ultimately, the goal is for them to become LEED-certified, a construction standard that requires renewable or environmentally-friendly materials and methods.

“Since we are a nature conservancy, we really thought it would be a good idea to make these things as green as possible,” said Kate Murray, the Conservancy’s Northeast Regional Conservation Coordinator.

Improvements will include energy-efficient windows, updated insulation and replacement of outmoded tile floors.

Outside doors will be installed at the visitor center to provide access to interior restrooms, and a water fountain will be available nearby. Those are much-wanted conveniences that McCall is hoping will not be abused by vandals.

“Our intent would be to try things like that that the public has asked for,” he said.

The preserve’s year-round staff of three doubles in the summer with the addition of three interns and operates on an annual budget of about $72,000, not including salaries. Last year, about 11,000 people signed the guest book at the kiosk — 1,000 of whom signed in July and August alone — but that number does not reflect the number of visitors who don’t sign or who enter the Woods from other trails.

Nags Head Woods was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1974, but Outer Bankers, taking their cue from early Native-American residents, have always considered the high-ridge maritime forest its secret refuge from salty winds, storm impacts and baking sun. The late Outer Banks historian and author David Stick, who knew the Outer Banks probably better than anybody, said that he would seek shelter in the Woods if an especially powerful hurricane had threatened the beaches.

The Conservancy began acquiring land in the forest in 1978, much of it through donations and cooperative agreements with Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head.

Over the years, a system of eight self-guided trails was established in the preserve, which now totals 1,200 acres. Leashed dogs are allowed on three trails, and horses and vehicles are allowed only on unpaved Old Nags Head Woods Road.

In 2011, a multi-use, handicapped-accessible loop trail was constructed down the road from the visitor’s center. Since then, the paved trail, which passes by a freshwater pond, a marsh overlook and a shady swamp forest, has become very popular with young parents pushing strollers and with folks who can’t manage a dirt trail but want to enjoy the serenity of the woods.

Private land, tree-shrouded houses and old family cemeteries are located within the total 1,400 acres of Woods that spans Run Hill to Jockey’s Ridge. The public unpaved road — most of which has a speed limit of 15 mph — is patrolled by Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills police.

One of a favorite targets of young vandals is the Yellow House, the purported home of the mythical Goat Man. In reality, the tiny building is an old hunting retreat and former intern quarters that has been abandoned and shuttered for years.

McCall said the building was recently vandalized twice in one week, and he has renewed discussions with the town of Nags Head about the possibility of removing it.

With a goal of starting construction in Nov. 2016, Phase I of the proposed renovation project would replace decking from the entrance area to the viewing platform, including the overhead structure and potentially new roofing for both buildings, Murray said. The metal link fencing between railings would be replaced by safer and less visually obstructive cable fencing.

Part of the design goal is opening up outdoor and interior spaces to improve “flow.”

“We’re trying to make these areas here better for visitors,” she said.

A reading library in the conference building would be enlarged and possibly add interactive screens. The kitchen area would be accessible to the meeting area that is available to other non-profit and community organizations. Currently, the kitchen is little more than the size of closet that is closed off behind a wall.

“It’s not really designed where people can gather and eat their food,” McCall said.

The outside kiosk that provides maps and informational brochures will be improved and remain accessible during off-hours. The possibility of updating it with a touch-screen is being considered.

Depending on available funds for project, the Conservancy would eventually like to improve the visitor parking lot — now little more than a square with no parking stripes or handicapped spaces — and the adjacent butterfly gardens and picnic area.

“As we raise funding for it, we want to do as much as possible,” McCall said. “So we need to have enough funding to cover enough phases. We don’t want to do it piecemeal.

“What we have right now is we have vision. And we have goals.”

Being practical and adaptable may be the key to seeing it through.

“The phases could be fluid,” Murray said. “We know what we need to get done. But we want to have flexibility with how it’s done.”

Want to donate?
Visit Nature.org/DONATENHW or call Genevieve Joseph, associate director of philanthropy at (919) 794-8870


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