Same sex marriage legalized in North Carolina

Same sex marriage in North Carolina is now legal, based on a ruling on October 10, 2014. People throughout Western North Carolina have some very opposing views when it comes to this issue, but most people understand that for now it is here to stay.

Watch the full story below.

NC Constitution as important as US Constitution?

“The North Carolina Constitution grants power, while the United States Constitution restricts power,”  Justice Robert Orr of the NC Supreme Court explained that this fact is one of the most important things to learn from the Constitution Day Lecture.

Orr gave a short overview of the NC Constitution. Robert Ferguson of the WCU Department of History gave a speech highlighting the importance of state constitutions. Chris Brook of the American Civil Liberties Union gave a comparison between the two constitutions.

Todd Collins talking to audience before Constitution Day lecture starts, Bardo Arts Center, September 17, 2014 photo by Michael Williams

Todd Collins talking to audience before Constitution Day lecture starts, Bardo Arts Center, Sept. 17, 2014. Photo by Michael Williams

The lecture panel was attended by more than 70 students and community members. The biggest subject of discussion was the importance of the Constitution of North Carolina.

“I feel that this evening was a very successful one,” said Todd Collins, one of the organizers of the event.

The panel was on Wednesday, Sept. 17, in the Bardo Arts Center.

“I came here tonight because I know how important the Constitution is to me,” says Janis Knowles of Sylva. “If more people become aware of the effects the Constitution has on them, I think they’d become better citizens.”

Every year, WCU hosts an event for Constitution Day. This event was one part in a year-long series of events here at WCU that tie-in with the theme, “North Carolina- Our State, Our Time.”

A hike into ‘Paradise’

Three hikers admire the view from the top of the Paradise waterfall. Photo by Katie Marshall. 6/14/2014

Three hikers admire the view from the top of the Paradise waterfall.
Photo by Katie Marshall. 6/14/2014

With only one year left in college, I thought I had hiked all around western North Carolina. But there was one view I hadn’t seen: the aptly named Paradise Falls.

Located in the Nantahala National Forest, Paradise Falls is a natural wonder. Three tiers tall, this waterfall is tucked into a tight chasm of massive rock.

If you search this place on the web, you can find directions—but that’s about all. Locals know about this hidden gem, but information is hard to come by. Neither the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce nor the Nantahala National Forest offer details about Paradise. It’s off the beaten track and, quite frankly, not for the unadventurous. But if you want a real hike and an amazing view, this is your ideal getaway.

The path to Paradise Falls begins in an unmarked grassy lot on the side of the road. A single sign reads “Danger: Water Levels Can Change.”

No other signs appear as either welcomes or guides. Although easily distinguishable, the paths to Paradise interconnect and sometimes swirl around each other, not unlike the waterfall itself. You may find yourself at the top of the waterfall instead of the bottom, but you shouldn’t get lost.

Paradise Falls is tucked into this massive gorge -- truly a natural wonder. Photo by Katie Marshall. 6/14/2014

Paradise Falls is tucked into this massive gorge — truly a natural wonder.
Photo by Katie Marshall. 6/14/2014

An added bonus is the thick coverage of the trees. Even during the summer heat, the weather will feel cool beneath the canopy. That comes in handy too. After all, the inclines are steep and slippery, whether with leaves or water. The cover from the heat is a relief considering the hike’s intensity.

As a person with short arms and short legs, I often crab-crawled my way down slopes of roots, rocks and algae. Whenever possible, I hugged fallen tree trucks to keep my balance. By the time I reached the waterfall, my arms were a little weak, but the view was worth it.

Three other hikers were already relaxing at the bottom of the falls, hammocking and wading around in the wide swimming hole.

Other visitors camp in the area, host family picnics and rock-climb up the gorge. But no matter what you do, take a moment to enjoy the sight. After dipping my feet in the cool water, I remember finding a dry spot to hammock. The falls were to my left; the great expanse of the Nantahala National Forest, to my right.

I can’t say how long I sat there. The June sky was a perfect blue, and the crash of water drowned out any noise. It was serene and, well, a lot like paradise.

How to Get There

From Western Carolina University, take Highway 107 south until you turn left on 281 north. Follow 281 north, and you will go around Tanasee Creek Lake on the left and Wolf Creek Lake on the right. You will find a grassy parking area with the sign “Danger: Water Levels Can Change,” which is the public entrance to Paradise Falls. Down the street there are other entrances behind Wolf Creek Baptist Church, but those are on private property.

If You Go

When the water is high, you will get your feet wet. Water shoes would be a great item to bring because they would lend both grip and comfort through the wading areas.

If you’re unsure about the intensity of the hike, please bring food and water and remember to take breaks.

Most Importantly

Water levels can change without warning. Wolf Creek Lake drains into Paradise Falls, and if the overflow gates are open, the currents may be swift and strong. You can check the lake levels and scheduled releases at You should also be mindful of the recent weather. Heavy rains can raise the water and significantly strengthen the currents.

The bottom of the waterfall is beautiful enough for anyone, but if you venture to the top, be extremely wary of the edges. Hikers have injured themselves and even fallen because of the wet rocks and slick algae. Cell service is unavailable and the location is remote. Please enjoy the beauty of the falls as safely as possible.

For a picture gallery of my visit to Paradise Falls, visit this Flickr album.

The story was produced as part of the Travel Writing class, Summer 2014.

Mass incarceration from a federal and state perspective

Photo by: Tanner Hall

Photo by: Tanner Hall

The United States imprisons more people at a higher rate and for longer periods than any other country in the world.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are over 225,000 state prisoners that are currently incarcerated for drug-related offenses – a costly result of policies created during the drug war that began in the 1970’s.

The “three-strikes” laws, enacted in several states throughout the 1990’s, including North Carolina, is one practice that factors into the country’s high incarceration rates. The laws aim to punish and deter “habitual” criminals by imposing a significantly tougher penalty for each time a person is convicted of a crime. Each state differs in exactly how much time a violation of a third strike receives, but the laws make it so that people are serving sentences up to life for crimes that carry far less weight under normal circumstances.

According to a 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, over 3,000 people are presently serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes due to variations of the three-strikes laws. The report chronicles the stories of some of these individuals, and shows exactly what it means to be trapped in the system.

Here is a video from the report:

The policies that shape the lack of opportunities given to people after their release from prison can help mold the career criminals that strict sentencing policies attempt to prevent.

Those that are convicted of a crime are deemed as criminals for the rest of their lives. Whether the prison sentence is for three months or for three years, when trying to secure a job, applying for a higher education and/or financial aid and housing benefits, people are forced to label themselves as criminals.

Wendi Bowen of the NC Employment Security Commission explained this concept in an email message, along with its possible consequences.

“If the father of a family is incarcerated, that is potential income taken from that family. After incarceration, he is less likely to find employment with a criminal record,” said Bowen. “If he cannot find employment, he is more likely to return to prison (someone who finds employment is 3 times less likely to return to prison). Having the father in prison and that income gone puts all kinds of strains on the family including financially and it also increases the chances of the children to follow his footsteps and become incarcerated.”

The high rates of recidivism – the amount of people that re-offend – can further damage some of the country’s most vulnerable citizens, decrease public safety and cost the taxpayers unseen millions.

“America is a melting pot of various cultures and with that comes racism,” said Bowen. “This also plays into our incarceration rates. Many of the get-tough-on-crime laws have targeted low income and minority individuals.”

Prison Business

Another side to the mass incarceration topic is the for-profit private prison industry that has taken hold in a number of states.

When the prison population outgrew what the taxpayers could provide, the job was handed over to private prison companies such as the GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), who are both dependent on incarceration to maximize their profits. The industry has continued to grow over the last decade across multiple states such as California and Florida, and with that, comes an increase in money spent by the companies on lobbying political campaigns.

Politicians and company executives have adamantly denied lobbying specifically for strict laws that induce high incarceration rates, but in any case, the monetary incentive for the rates to be high remains.

The idea of private prisons is based on the theoretical ability to cut costs while competition among private prison groups ensures high standards in the facilities. According to a report from Temple University, funded by companies within the private prison industry, the industry has succeeded in doing both. However, many reports and stories by other organizations and news agencies conflict Temple’s report and indicate serious problems within some of the nation’s private prisons.

An assessment report of Arizona’s private prisons by the American Friends Service Committee found that the private prisons are costing the state millions each year and are significantly less safe than state-run prisons.

In Florida, an investigative piece by the Huffington Post shows alarming evidence of systematic abuse in for-profit youth prisons, including violent attacks from guards that went undocumented and were neglected by officials.

The effectiveness of private prisons to do as they are designed will undoubtedly vary from state-to-state; however, when the goal of privatization is to cut costs and maintain standards, putting the job in the hands of corporations that are driven by the bottom line produces results that are inconsistent.

“Anytime there is an advantage to anyone for incarcerating individuals, there is a problem,” said Bowen. “Companies, individuals, the government – no one should profit from crime.”

The issues involved in mass incarceration are interconnected with each other and societal factors such as education and income levels. The people in the system are not represented in the political process when they are stripped of their right to vote following their conviction. Money and politics – for-profit prisons and the tough-on-crime narratives – provide the foundation for policies that lead directly to the high incarceration rates seen across the country.

Mass incarceration in North Carolina

In North Carolina, the only private prison facility listed on the state’s Division of Labor website is the Center for Community Transitions, which is a nonprofit organization made up of three support programs, including the “LifeWorks!” program. LifeWorks! focuses on helping people transition back into society after their release from prison.

The program meets every day for the span of two weeks and offers a variety of services and resources for the men and women who sign up. The most prominent aspect of the program is the employment readiness class.

Program Director Patricia Martelly said in a phone conversation that the goal of the class is not to simply give people jobs, but rather to give them the tools necessary to land a job on their own.

The program also provides free transportation, interview attire, substance abuse referrals and access to a computer lab.

Martelly mentioned that the computer lab is particularly important because the public library system has a 2-hour time limit on computer use, which cannot support the time and energy that needs to be committed to filling out numerous job applications, especially for people who aren’t familiar with computers.

After the program is completed, participants receive a certificate of graduation, a source of weekly job leads and a connection to a case manager to see if they have any other immediate needs. In those situations, LifeWorks! can provide clothes, food, hygiene items and more.

The LifeWorks! program is the only one of its kind in Mecklenburg County, and the Center for Community Transitions has not participated in any political lobbying according to the financial records listed on its website.

From a policy standpoint, North Carolina legislature has shown a common interest in stopping the cycle of criminality – at least on the surface.

In 2011, the North Carolina Justice Reinvestment Act was passed in a bipartisan effort to cut costs and increase public safety by reducing the rates of recidivism. The act aims to make sure that programs such as LifeWorks! are adequately funded and inmates returning to society across the state are motivated, supported and prepared to re-enter society without looking back.

According to the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the North Carolina’s prison population by 2017 will be down 5000 beds from the projections before the act was signed into law:

“This will translate into $560 million in averted costs and cumulative savings ($267 million in avoided costs and $293 million in reduced costs). These savings have positioned the state to reinvest more than $4 million annually (a 40 percent increase in spending) on additional community-based treatment programs to improve outcomes for people on supervision.”

The North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission (SPAC) submits a report every other year that assesses recidivism data from prior years and proposes solutions on how to potentially lower recidivism rates. The report published in 2012 reviewed data from 2008-09; however, the upcoming report in 2014 will include data from years under the Justice Reinvestment Act. SPAC expects to see early success with the act, but also cautions readers to have patience:

“As with any large-scale change to correctional policy, expectations for success in preventing future criminality should be viewed realistically. Components of an offender’s criminal history, current offense, and experiences with the correctional system are all elements strongly correlated with continued criminal behavior.”

Moving forward

Back in August 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder called for sweeping drug-sentencing reform that would help put an end to the policies and narratives that have entangled U.S. prison system in profit motives instead of rehabilitation.

It is imperative that mass incarceration is addressed with a systematic approach that recognizes how interconnected prisons can be with politics and capitalism. When policies are altered, careful analysis on the impact by unbiased sources can give an accurate representation of how much progress is being made on the issue.

And while some states deal with mass incarceration by allowing companies to turn a profit, North Carolina has avoided privatizing the system and has instead focused on reducing the rates of recidivism, which appears to be a more effective way of cutting costs and limiting the burden of incarceration on the people in the system, their families and on the state.

Celebrate Earth Day like a local

Smell of funnel cake and sounds of bluegrass mixed with jazz and fiddle  filled up downtown Sylva,  Saturday, April 26, to celebrate the Greening up the Mountains Festival .

“It started out as an Earth Day festival, and this is the 17th one. It’s always the fourth Saturday in April,” said Paige Roberson, Sylva town manager, about the history of the Greening up the Mountains Festival.

Check out the video story from WCJ editor Randy Conn.

The festival had live music on multiple stages throughout the day. There were 14 bands between the Bridge Park Stage and the Signature Brew Stage. Some of the bands that played were Mangas Colorado, Porch 40, and The Buchanan Boys, local bands in Sylva. Then they had Triple Threat Children’s stage to have some talents for the younger performers. Between bands there were acts from the community, like a kung fu routine.

Visitors to the 17th Greening up the mountain festival in Sylva enjoyed many vendors. Photo by Hunter Bryn.

Visitors to the 17th Greening up the mountain festival in Sylva enjoyed many vendors. Photo by Hunter Bryn.

There were vendors up and down Main Street in Sylva. From the police station handing out free snow cones to the local roller derby team selling merchandise and seeking donations.

“We get to know the community, get to know the people and give them free stuff. This is my first year, but I love it,” said Nancy Brindley, Smoothie King Vendor, about why she decided to come out to Greening up the Mountains.

Visitors also enjoyed the hospitality, good music, food and drinks offered.

“I had a great time. There are some really nice people, great stores from the local community and especially amazing local music talent here in Sylva that is being represented at the festival. The town of Sylva really knows how to make you feel welcome,” said Kendall Hoyt, Western Carolina University student.

This festival has something for everyone. Be sure not to miss it next year. Remember, Greening up the Mountains festival is always the fourth Saturday in April.

See more photos from the festival.

Hunting the mourning dove

The Green River Game Lands

The story was updated December 2, 2013 with a multimedia at the end of the story.

The sun had shifted from directly above to directly over the trees on the opposite side of the blown down corn field, leaving no space for shade except the slat right behind the trees we were standing under. We had to stand under the trees on the edge of the woods for camouflage. Our short-sleeved camouflaged t-shirts became sweaters in the mid-afternoon September heat. Gray decoys perched on the ground and on broken corn stalks, feigning food and safety. The Mojo Voodoo Dove Decoy’s wings flapped restlessly in stationary flight. Suddenly, a gray mass arose from the line of treetops on our left and flew towards us in synchronized disarray. Individual mourning doves swarmed and dove towards the decoys, frightened out of their safe havens by some unknown interruption, and Matt Bodenhamer and Zack Davis
raised their shotguns.

Matt Bodenhamer and Zack Davis carry their shotguns and decoys to a better location

My first dove hunt began on a hot September afternoon in the Green River Game Lands of Henderson and Polk counties. The Green River Game Lands are over 10,000 acres of forest set aside for management and conservation of the wildlife in the Green River Gorge. Hunting, fishing, and trapping are allowed on the game lands, as well as hiking, at risk to the hiker during hunting season.

“The section of the Green River Game Lands that we hunted has got to be one of the most beautiful places in all of Polk and Henderson counties. It has one awesome panoramic view of an old homestead farm and mountains surrounding it. You couldn’t ask for a better habitat for doves,” said Zack Davis, an NC State Fish and Wildlife major and dove hunting companion.

Matt and Zack attend NC State University as Fish and Wildlife majors and have both dove hunted for a while now. For both men, dove hunting originated from a love of hunting in general. For Matt, it started in a cut soybean field with a couple of friends, a couple of shotguns, no decoys and no idea how to hunt them. When a few flew overhead, he shot two, and from then on was inspired to learn about their habits, how to harvest them and how to sustain a better population of mourning doves. For Zack, it began in high school when his agriculture teachers, who were avid dove hunters, took him for the first time.

“I didn’t get to shoot a dove that day, but I did get to shoot at some, which got me hooked, and since then I’ve been going several times a year. I fully intend to continue dove hunting and make it a tradition for my kids,” Zack said.

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2013 “Mourning Dove Population Status Report”, mourning doves are one of the most abundant bird species of North America. The migratory birds are managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and annual hunting regulations are made according to results of population assessments throughout the year. In the past two years, North Carolina has had the highest annual count of mourning doves. The most recent absolute abundance estimates concluded that there were 349 million mourning doves in the United States in the 2012 preseason and the numbers continue to rise. Mourning doves are abundant in southern Canada, throughout the United States into Mexico, Bermuda, the Bahamas and Greater Antilles, and in scattered locations in Central America.

The blown over corn and millet fields, surrounded by trees and forest, provide an ample habitat for mourning dove. According to an article, “Mourning Doves”, by Dan Hicks, doves are attracted to many different seeds and grains such as sunflowers, millet, grain sorghum, corn, buckwheat and sesame. For hunters looking to hunt the mourning doves, they should seek out a large, open field with structures such as trees or power lines, as doves like to perch and loaf around ideal areas.

Fallen corn fields make great habitat for mourning doves

The Green River Game Lands make for a perfect habitat for the mourning doves that we were hunting.

“It was the first time that I have ever been on the Green River Game Lands. The NC Wildlife Commission has worked tremendously hard on this land to manage it correctly and supply the general public with not only a breathtaking landscape, but a land full of hunting opportunities. We walked over a mile and crossed a small creek where most people are not willing to travel. The gently sloping land was filled with patches of corn, millet, and pokeberry,” explained Matt Bodenhamer.

Several times during our hunting trip, one or the other of us would take out from the cover of trees and walk around the field in order to find where the birds were perching when they weren’t flying. I walked with Zack on the first of these excursions. We kept our eyes peeled for lone doves diving from treetops and, sure enough, they had moved to the opposite end of the field. He put his hand out to stop me from walking any further and we moved towards the edge of the trees where they were perched and waited. Two doves flew out from their safe haven and Zack raised his shotgun to his shoulder, took aim at one of the birds, and shot. The bird tucked away back into the safety of the trees, unharmed, but it wasn’t long before we heard several shots ring out over the hill.

The only gun allowed to be used to kill doves is a shotgun that holds no more than three shells. A shotgun allows the hunter to have a broader range of shot and better chance of getting a bird as the doves are quick and fly in sporadic patterns.

“Where a rifle shoots a single projectile round at a designated target, a shotgun shoots many different small bead-like projectiles known as shot. Shot is contained in a shell that consists of the powder wadding and the shot,” Matt explained.

We crested the hill and found Matt in amongst the trees again, with a few doves at the trunk of the tree. The sound of Zack’s shot had spooked the doves on the edge of the corn field out of the treetops and Matt was able to bring a few down in their frenzy. The doves fly from the treetops towards the decoys because the dove decoys make the birds think there is a food source and that it is a safe place for them to land.

The Mojo Voodoo Dove Decoy tricks the doves into thinking there is a safe food source

For Zack, the most exhilarating part of dove hunting is the natural instinct he feels.

“When the doves are almost in range there is that moment of anticipation, you’re raising your gun to get the bird in your sights all the while your mind is focused on the shot. For that brief moment you don’t think, you simply let your instincts follow the bird and when it’s in range you pull the trigger. That’s the exhilarating part, being able to do something without even thinking, like its second nature.”

By the end of the day, we walked away with six doves.

According to the US Humane Society’s website, mourning doves are a “farmer’s friend” bird and should not be hunted.

“[Doves] are too small to provide any sustenance, they don’t cause any problems, they’re not overpopulated. These birds don’t cause car accidents, they don’t knock over your trashcans, they don’t spread diseases. These are gentle, inoffensive, backyard songbirds and they should not be treated as game,” said Michael Markarian of the US Humane Society in a Youtube video on the society’s website.

However, according to the Fish and Wildlife service, hunting mourning doves is a healthy way to keep the population maintained. All of the doves that Matt and Zack shot were made into dinner that same night, as well. Dove breasts are small, but can make a substantive meal with quantity and the right seasoning. Dove mean is dark and delicate and made a delicious post-hunt meal.

“The best way to clean a dove is by breaking off both wings and pinching the lower end of the breast plate. There is a gap between the breast and the anus where the skin can be pinched. Grip it tightly and pull the skin towards the head. This will sever the skin and feathers. Gently push on both sides of the breast and the skin and feathers will slide off. After the feather removal, push your thumb underneath the breast plate and lift up,” Matt explained.

Matt cooked the doves he shot and we had them for dinner

Both men had similar ways to cook the meat as well, of their own creation, both involving the breasts being wrapped in bacon. Zack prefers to season his dove meat simply with salt and pepper, while Matt enjoys marinating his.

“Some argue that mourning doves are the most succulent bird meat of the game species in NC. Their meat is extremely tender which allows it to soak up marinades well. My favorite recipe is marinated dove breast wrapped in hickory smoked bacon. It is as simple as it sounds. Simply put your dove breasts in a bag and marinade them with your favorite marinade for an hour. Wrap the bacon around the breast and use toothpicks to hold it in to place. Cook it slowly on the grill and that is all that you have to do. My favorite marinade is Allegro original,” Matt explained.

I had never tasted dove before this hunt and, having raised a mourning dove that had fallen out of a nest some years before this, was a little hesitant. Wrapped in bacon, however, it didn’t look so much like the bird I had raised as a pet. As I took my first bite of the succulent meat, I was surprised at the lack of gamey taste I have experienced in the meat of other wild animals such as deer. The breast is approximately the size of a chicken nugget yet laden with rich meat, nonetheless. Because the breasts are so small, they drank in the marinade and were dripping with flavor. Paired with the bacon, green beans, cornbread, mashed potatoes and sweet tea, the dove made for a mouthwatering country dinner that I could look forward to every dove season.

For the 2013 dove hunting season, hunters are only allowed to have 15 doves per day in their individual possession and 45 doves per group. Doves are a migratory bird and, therefore, are protected and managed by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission and the dove season dates are determined by mating season. The NC Wildlife Resources Commission conducts studies each year to ensure that doves are not being harvested during mating seasons. The 2013 dove hunting season dates, according to the NC Wildlife Resources Commission Website, are September 5 through October 5, November 25 through 30 and December 13 through January 11.

The video below displays graphic images of doves being cleaned and prepared for cooking: