Little Washington's eco-consciousness makes it a hub of ecotourism in NC

Capitalizing on its growing appeal, Washington is utilizing its best natural resource - the waterfront - and using ecotourism to help grow its economy.

Posted Updated

This article was written for our sponsor, Washington Tourism Development Authority.

In Beaufort County, you'll find the quaint town of Little Washington. Located along the Pamlico and Tar Rivers, the town has become a major attraction for tourists who want to take advantage of water activities and green spaces.

Capitalizing on its growing appeal, Washington is utilizing its best natural resource – the waterfront – and using ecotourism to help grow its economy.

According to the International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism is defined as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education."

The principles of ecotourism are to:

  • build environmental and cultural awareness and respect;
  • provide positive experiences for visitors and hosts;
  • minimize impact;
  • provide financial benefits for conservation;
  • generate financial benefits and empowerment for local and indigenous people;
  • design and construct low-impact facilities;
  • and raise sensitivity to local political, environmental and social climates.

For the 10,000 residents of Washington, the principles of ecotourism are a way of life as environmental awareness and protecting the water are embedded into the fabric of the community and part of the town's heritage.

Heather Deck, executive director of Sound Rivers, a nonprofit whose mission is to preserve the health and beauty of the Neuse, Pamlico and Tar River basins through environmental justice, noted the water is the heart of Washington.

"The river is what really brings people together," said Deck.

Sound Rivers was founded in 2015 after the merger of the Neuse River Foundation and the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation.

Sound Rivers has implemented a new program called the Tar-Pamlico Water Trail, where locals and visitors can kayak and paddle down the rivers. (Photo Courtesy of Washington Tourism Development Authority)

Deck explained that in the 1980s, locals throughout Beaufort County realized the health of the rivers had deteriorated so much that people could no longer safely fish or swim in them. The Neuse and Pamlico-Tar River Foundations formed as grassroots organizations to advocate for the protection of the waterways.

With more shoreline than any other county in North Carolina, Beaufort County realized an organization like Sound Rivers was vital for its environmental and economic future.

Not only does commercial fishing play a huge role in Washington's economy, the water also impacts restaurants, shopping, and outdoor activities like canoeing, kayaking and sailing. Deck, who started at Sound Rivers as a riverkeeper, a role that focuses on civic engagement and environmental education, said "the river is an important economic asset to the region and we need to protect it."

Getting people to appreciate the environment by providing fun activities is an important theme in Washington.

In fact, Sound Rivers previously hosted paddling trips up and down the river and hopes to open the paddles up to even more community members in the future. In doing so, the organization is also raising awareness of the importance of preserving and maintaining these water systems.

"We did the whole of Tar River last year, which is a 10-day trip from Oxford, all the way down to Washington, 165 miles total. It was originally going to be a big event where we invited a bunch of people and made it a whole thing, but then COVID came around. We were able to pivot and turn it into an annual fundraiser, awareness education, outreach-type venture, with a few longtime members," said Clay Barber, the environmental projects coordinator for Sound Rivers. "We would love to do trips like this with other people. The Tar-Pamlico Water Trail is public use, and we have camping platforms along the way."

If people want to venture the water on their own, they can find an interactive map on the Tar-Pamlico River Water Trail site that shows the platforms and reservation details.

Like the camping platforms, many of the Sound Rivers' projects along the rivers are made possible through grants. These projects are making the water more accessible for tourists and locals alike.

"We're actually about to wrap up a pretty big grant project where we're constructing ADA accessible kayak launches at popular North Carolina wildlife accesses. The grant that we're working on now has already funded three of those, and we constructed two of them in Washington," said Barber. "There were actually no ADA kayak launches in Mason's Landing and Haven's Garden in Washington, which are very popular boat ramps. Since we built those, they've already gotten a lot of traffic."

The final kayak launch will be built nearby at the Greenville Port Terminal.

For those unfamiliar with being on the water, Sound Rivers also runs a number of instructional programs.

For example, the organization has a summer program for kids to learn how to sail. Additionally, there's the availability of the Tar-Pamlico Water Trail, which offers opportunities to kayak and paddle down the rivers and camp at one of 14 platforms placed along the river from Franklin County to Beaufort County that Barber previously mentioned.

Deck said it's important to ensure outdoor activities in Washington are available to everyone. Wheelchair-accessible boat ramps and platforms are in the works because "everyone should be able to fish, boat and swim, and the river needs to be accessible to everyone so there is no inequity."

Jackie Woolard, executive director of Partnership for the Sounds, agrees with Deck that the river is a crucial part of Washington's economy and drives tourism.

Woolard, a Washington native, has been with Partnership for the Sounds for 26 years. The organization's mission is to celebrate the nature and culture of the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula through environmental education.

During her time at Partnership for the Sounds, Woolard has seen Washington grow into a leading resource for environmental stewardship with the help of one of its best educational resources – the estuarium.

The world's first, the N.C. Estuarium is part-classroom and part-museum. With more than 200 exhibits, an aquarium, artwork and interactive displays, the estuarium allows visitors to learn about how hurricanes are formed, look at indigenous artifacts, view critters like zombie crabs, and learn about rising sea levels. Woolard is especially hopeful that a visit to the estuarium will "plant a seed in school kids."

"[I hope] they will see for themselves a future in environmental science, and become biologists or go into forestry," she mused.

Woolard also acknowledges people can become overwhelmed when thinking of how to help the environment. She said the estuarium has an exhibit about everyday activities a person can do to be more environmentally conscious. Turning off the water when brushing your teeth, not pouring gas and oil down the drain, cleaning up after pets, not letting yard waste get into drains, and washing your car on a permeable surface so the water is absorbed into the ground are all helpful and easy habits to form.

A visit to the estuarium can also spark an interest in learning about green spaces. At Goose Creek State Park, visitors can explore more than 1,600 acres and take part in the 1.25-mile Mallard Creek Hike, learn about owls, and hear about the history of North Carolina black bears.

"We walk this delicate line of promoting the beauty and health of recreational rivers and the water trail, as well as highlighting issues that are a problem that people need to know about. Those two things really compliment each other," said Barber. "The more people we can get out on the water to see how gorgeous it is out there and how easy it is to do things like paddle, fish, swim and walk along the river, they become all the more likely to want to help. These sorts of opportunities really help people become good environmental stewards, support our other work and just be a little more conscious in their own daily habits."

According to Barber, Washington is already incredibly supportive of the sustainability work that Sound Rivers is doing around the rivers. For example, they regularly have volunteers show up to help out on river cleanups, as well as water sampling initiatives. Additionally, nearby Eastern Carolina University is helping the organization with water quality and river usage projects and initiatives.

In addition to advocating for river health and parks, Washington is environmentally friendly when it comes to development and small businesses. The town is particularly skilled at revitalizing existing buildings instead of building new ones, leading to less overall waste, cutting down fewer trees, and resourcing of existing materials. Landscape architects use mulch for walkways in downtown areas and there is a push for businesses to use LED lighting.

Several small businesses also use locally sourced products to cut down on transportation and provide economic activity for local farmers.

The Harbor District Market provides opportunities for different vendors to sell local produce, arts and crafts and other products, generating revenue that leads right back into the local economy. Rachel K's Bakery uses recycled products, and The Hackney is able to use locally- and regionally-sourced produce from Southside Farms, Deep Roots Farm and Beaufort County Organics.

In Washington, the town works together to care for the environment. Woolard hopes visitors will not only have fun in Washington, but learn from Washington's environmentally friendly practices and take the knowledge back to their own communities.

"You have to live in the environment," she said. "Our activities affect other people; so if people have awareness, they can assume some responsibility for their portion of helping the environment."

This article was written for our sponsor, Washington Tourism Development Authority.


Copyright 2023 by Capitol Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.