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License Tag Law Threatens Support for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian National Scenic Trail


An upcoming change in license plate regulations in North Carolina likely will make these plates -- top, in support of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and, bottom, in support of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail -- collector items. Danny Bernstein photos.

My husband and I have a mixed marriage. His car has an "Appalachian Trail" license tag that shows a hiker with a large backpack. I have a "Friends of the Smokies" plate with a black bear on a green background.

But both North Carolina license plates are in danger of disappearing. That's because the North Carolina Legislature has passed a law that, as of July 2015, all full-color license plates will be replaced with ones that feature a small logo of the benefiting organization on the side.

This has great implications to all the friends groups that help fund projects in national parks in North Carolina. License plate money is a big money maker for the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, Friends of the Smokies, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and many other groups that raise money for good causes. The extra cost to the car owner is $30. Of that, $20 goes to the sponsoring group and $10 to the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicle.

Friends of the Smokies has sold 20,000 plates, which translates to $400,000 in 2010 alone to help Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Though the park is in both Tennessee and North Carolina, a stipulation of the license plate program is that the money raised must be spent in North Carolina. So last year Friends of the Smokies used the money for displays in the history museum at Oconaluftee Visitor Center, elk programs, and visitor services. That last one is a euphemism for toilets in hard to reach areas. Now in Cataloochee Valley, the outhouses at the start of Pretty Hollow Trail have been upgraded to vault toilets.   

Friends of the Smokies was the first group to have a specialty plate in 1999. And that program alone returned $200,000 a year to the state. Since it doesn't cost an extra $10 for DMV to administer the specialty tag, the money goes to fund North Carolina visitor centers on highways. The wildflowers you see as you drive on North Carolina highways are also funded by this money. The state is making money on the plate.

The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation license plate is the best seller in North Carolina with 27,000 plates. Carolyn Ward, executive director of the Foundation, says that "the BRP Foundation gives $500,000 a year to the Blue Ridge Parkway from license plates and more than $200,000 to the state."

One of the projects it supports are improvements to Graveyard Fields, milepost 418.8. Right now, the area is suffering terrible resource impact. The money will help build bathrooms, expand the parking lot, improve some trails, and add interpretive signage. The work will start next year.

Ms. Ward explains that, "For us the specialty plate is an opportunity for our supporters to freely choose to help the Parkway. Also we have 27,000 little billboards that bring visibility to the Blue Ridge Parkway."

The Appalachian Trail goes through 14 states from Georgia to Maine, but North Carolina was the first to get an A.T. plate approved. There are more than  5,400 A.T. plates in North Carolina. Backpackers enjoy this new source of funding when they stay at an A.T. shelter maintained by the Carolina Mountain Club. The club installed bear cables at ten shelter sites from Davenport Gap to Spivey Gap so campers can now easily string up their food bags away from bears and chipmunks without throwing a rope around a tree. The license plate money paid for the materials, but the volunteer work is always priceless.

Morgan Somerville, director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Southern Regional Office, explains that "there are also A.T. license plates in Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia, but ATC doesn't get any income from the Georgia plates. That takes a special piece of legislation to get money, and we haven't been successful to get that legislation passed."

These specialty license plates provide support and a fun way to personalize your car. It's voluntary, private money, and our national parks and the state could surely use as much of that kind of support as they can get. Steve Woody, a founding board member of Friends of the Smokies, says that "this money is almost like an annuity. It keeps coming in and you don't have to do anything after the first year."

What harm could there be in these specialty places? It's a design on a license plate - that's all. Only 1 percent of North Carolina cars have specialty plates, anyway.

Why did the North Carolina Legislature pass such a law pass? After talking to many people tuned into the North Carolina Legislature and reading local articles, I've heard all the following reasons and can only speculate.

*  This is the first Republican North Carolina Legislature in more than 100 years. So the Republicans are trying to undo everything the Democrats did.

*  The legislature has added a "Respect Life" plate without adding a "Respect Choice" plate. Mitch Gillespie, the Republican who sponsored the legislation, really wanted an anti-choice plate and some say it's all a cover for getting an anti-choice plate approved. Of course, the American Civil Liberties Union is suing.

* Some legislators just want all the plates to say "First in Flight." I loved my visit to the Wright Brothers Memorial, but it's only one North Carolina story.

*  Some say that law enforcement can't read all the specialty plates easily. The Highway Safety Patrol, the Division of Motor Vehicles, and several other groups have to approve all the plate designs. So that's another bogus explanation that keeps making the local news.

I've even heard it said that the Division of Motor Vehicles doesn't like the extra work.

I can even get paranoid and note that the four most popular license plates in North Carolina support outdoor groups: Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, Friends of the Smokies, Ducks Unlimited, and the North Carolina Coastal Federation

As the law stands now, in 2015, instead of a full-color license plate, a logo for the group will be shoehorned in a small corner. No one will be able to read it while on the road, only if you get close to it when the car is parked.

Diehards like my husband and me will continue to hang a specialty plate on our car no matter what it looks like. We want to advertise that we support outdoor organizations.

But Holly Demuth, director of the Friends of the Smokies, points out that a study showed that 37 percent of North Carolina drivers buy the plate because they like the look of the plate, not necessarily because they want to support the group. Ms. Demuth and Friends members are concerned that this new design will decrease the number of plates sold and thus the dollars raised for the parks.

All the friends groups want to keep these people who buy a specialty license tag because they think it is attractive. Once the tag is on their car, they will then grow to feel affection for protecting the resources of the national parks. And the parks could surely use the money.

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I assume you are referring to  SESSION LAW 2011-392  HOUSE BILL 289?  I must say it is very confusing.  At one point it says they (the existing specialty plates you refer to) are exempt and then it seems to say they need to be replaced but they are not listed on the acceptible replacements.  Are you sure the intent is to replace these plates?  Have you talked to the sponsoring legislators to get their rationale?
It would seem a shame to replace them unless there is truly a law enforcement need.  The rest of the offered reasons are pretty lame.

I would hate to see those plates go away. It would be cool to have one similar for a Motorcycle. Now that's the way to enjoy the Blue Ridge Pkwy!

To find the reason for such legislation, one should always "follow the money." I suspect that campaign contributions by the companies that profit from traffic camera fines are the real motivation behind this legislation.

The author in support of their position wrote:
"The legislature has added a "Respect Life" plate without adding a
"Respect Choice" plate. Mitch Gillespie, the Republican who sponsored
the legislation, really wanted an anti-choice plate and some say it's
all a cover for getting an anti-choice plate approved. Of course, the
American Civil Liberties Union is suing."
What does that have to do with the article other than reveal a particular political position. 
People will continue to buy vanity plates and the money will continue to flow to the proper organizations but not at the rate it has in the past...but then we are in one heck of an economic mess w/9% unemployment...soooo let's bash the Rebublicans it is their fault!  Cut me a break!! 

Hi ecbuck:
  Yes, I am referring to NC house bill 289. Thanks
for clarifying this. The Friends groups most affected by this
legislation has been meeting with various legislators to see if there's
any kind of a compromise. Any North Carolinian can write to their
legislators and voice their opinion.
Danny Bernstein

Hello, I myself LOVE the  Friends of the Smokies Tags and will continue to Support the  Smokies.Besides the purchase of the tags I also a  member of the Friends of the Smokies.My Family  and I  do alot of  Camping at Cades Cove.So the money is  well spent on the camp grounds and bathrooms ect.The tags are really cool looking and I will continue to support the Smokies.Thank you

What does this have to do with it?????? .... Yes it's all about politics. The state rep who introduced this bill wants to get rid of plates such as Friends of the Smokies, Blue Ridge Parkway and the ATC. Yet he wants to keep his anti abortion plate. This isn't political?  If you ...  actually read and comprehend this whole article, the money that's generated from plate sales goes to these groups. Where does the money for an anti abortion tag go? Sounds to me like it goes in someones pocket. Like all the state reps that approved such a stupid law. Yeah, lets bash republicans. There is no other way to deal with utter ignorance.
This comment was toned down. Ed.

Hey Ridinwind... just wanted to let you know that such a plate for motorcycles does exist for the Blue Ridge Parkway.  We were involved with helping the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation get enough initial plate signups so that it could be produced.  It's now been in production for a little over a year.  You can find out more here:
Also, both my cars have personalized Blue Ridge Parkway plates and I would hate to lose my personalization and the decoration of the tag.
For those of you who don't live in North Carolina, Virginia also has (or is trying to have) a Blue Ridge Parkway plate through Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and there is a vanity plate available for vehicles in other states where it is not prohibited.  
More on the Virginia tag program:
(Scroll down for the section "License Plate Update")
More on the vanity plate:
Hope this helps those interested!
Joe Veler
Virtual Blue Ridge

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