Hyde County residents have little to laugh about in what is one of the poorest counties in the state. But if you want to hear a huge belly-laugh, visit a local eatery at lunch and loudly announce "I'm the government and I'm here to help." Note: wear running shoes because when the laughter stops, you might have to run for your life.
To understand the impacts and importance of the latest controversy - shallow depths and salt water intrusion into Lake Mattamuskeet, the state's largest freshwater lake - one has to be able to place it in the context of the county's economic history and demographics.
The US Census estimates that between 2010 and 2012, there was less than one percent population growth; the North Carolina Department of Commerce predicts no growth in the next five years. There are few well paying jobs and prospects of a "job-creator" locating there are slim.
While 84.1 percent of the state's residents are high school grads, only 75.7 percent of Hyde County residents have completed high school. The state percentage of residents holding at least a bachelor's degree is 26.5; only 10.7 percent of Hyde residents have degrees in higher education.
The Hyde County school district is already one of the poorest in the state but due to actions in the General Assembly this past session, it will lose a half million dollars of state funding in each of the next two years. Many of the students who do graduate and attend college choose not to return to the county with their degrees because there are few opportunities for them..
Statewide, 16.1 percent of the residents are at or below poverty level; in Hyde County more than a quarter of the residents are in that slot on the economic scale. This current administration's cuts to food stamps, unemployment benefits and the state's refusal to accept Medicaid that would have given some access to health care is being exacerbated by the closing of the closest hospital in Belhaven. Hospitals were receiving federal funds to help offset the cost of treating those without financial means to pay but when the Medicaid expansion went into effect, the federal subsidies to hospitals ended and the state refused the Medicaid funds.
About 33 percent of the population is African-American and about another seven percent is comprised of other minority races; the population trends more toward the elderly than the young.
The cuts in unemployment benefits are particularly problematic on Ocracoke which has mostly a seasonal economy and thus many businesses close in the winter.
Cornucopia usually refers to a horn of plenty - a symbol of abundance and nourishment. But Hyde residents have long been treated to a cornucopia of government neglect and broken promises. And every step back on the mainland portion of the county is felt by residents and businesses in Ocracoke Village located on Ocracoke Island.
A large portion of the county's tax revenue is dependent on the tourism drawn to the village and the higher property values on the island. The 700-acre village is accessible only by ferry - about two hours from the mainland or 45 minutes from Hatteras Island. The mainland ferry has a tax of $15 each way. There is no tax on the Hatteras/Ocracoke ferry - the village's only free access. But the state has been contemplating charging for the ferry - it was in the state budget but was pulled out and sent to a regional board to decide. If there is a tax added to it, Ocracoke Village will become the only community in the state whose residents and visitors will be taxed to enter and leave.
(At the time of this writing, the tax to ride the ferries to and from the mainland are temporarily waived due to the closure of the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge because of safety concerns. The bridge was the only free access for those going across Hatteras and Pea islands to the northern beaches.)
Ocracoke Village's economy has already been hurt by government actions. The island is 16 miles long and ranges from a half-mile to three miles wide. Except for the small village, the island is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. For decades, the surrounding beaches drew visitors who wanted to fish on the beach, bird-watch, or just lay out in the sun. But that changed a few years back when the National Park Service which manages the property filed a plan to close off large portions of the beach to protect birds and turtles. To drive on the beach in the areas that are open, a permit is required - the cost of the permit ranges from $50 for a week to $120 for an annual pass. Most of the beaches are not reasonably accessible by foot and the closed areas also are mostly closed to pedestrians.
The businesses on the island have worked hard to minimize the economic impact but it is an ongoing struggle - it's difficult to make lemonade when the lemons are gone. It is still a beautiful place to vacation and that has been the village's saving grace.
The tax revenues generated by the tourism-based economy on the island is used support a large portion of the county's budget. The mainland of Hyde is rural and depends primarily on commercial fishing and farming. The commercial fishing industry has been negatively impacted during the last decade by ever-increasing regulations as well as the frequent loss of safe passage through Oregon Inlet for those vessels that fish the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Frequently, seafood that would be landed in Engelhard or Swan Quarter is off loaded in other locales because of accessibility. This impacts local fish houses and reduces the number of employees used for off loading, packing, cleaning, etc.
Farming is periodically hit with woes caused by droughts or an over abundance of rain that saturate crops.
Off the beaten path, the county has never been able to attract job-creating industries that depend on good transportation corridors and skilled workers.
But a little more than a decade or so ago, there was a glimmer of hope of developing a different sort of tourism economy on the mainland. Bass fishermen and waterfowl hunters already flocked to Lake Mattamuskeet to enjoy the great fishing and unrivaled hunting opportunities.
The old lodge at the lake was opened for meetings, weddings, and as a place researchers could stay for a night or two while they collected data for various studies. In the late fall, local groups came together to produce the Swan Days Festival at the lodge and which attracted tourists, artists, photographers and locals. For what was probably the first time ever, there were reasons to go to Lake Mattamuskeet for things other than fishing and hunting. It was becoming a "destination" where hundreds of thousands of Tundra Swan and Snow Geese flew in each fall and winter and their presence created an unrivaled backdrop of beauty for any event or activity.
And then the plug was pulled out of this potential life boat. The US Fish and Wildlife Service ordered the lodge closed due to structural safety issues. Long-known repairs had gone without attention year after year because of federal budget cuts. With the closing, the mainland lost its little ray of hope to be able to grow its share of the economy through use of the lodge coupled with the existing use of the lake.
Years passed without any repairs to the lodge which drew the ire of former North Carolina Sen. Marc Basnight. He set out to try to give the county back its hope for a better future by wheeling and dealing until the federal government agreed to give the lodge portion of the refuge to the state. The state, in turn, made a commitment to restore the lodge with the ambition of jump-starting the mainland's economy again. The work was designed to be done in phases and the first was completed and the second was funded when the national economic downturn hit. Although the money was appropriated, the Council of State chose not to release it because of fears that it would be needed to balance the budget. As more years went by, the money slipped back into the state coffers and off legislators' radar.
Management of the federal portion of Lake Mattamuskeet has frequently changed over the years as managers stayed just long enough to find another slot.
There are no movie theaters or other entertainment venues and, because of high transportation costs, basic necessities such as groceries and gas are not competitively priced compared to surrounding counties.
Although the school system strives hard to offer a sound education, lack of resources often finds it wanting. These and other issues make the county a less than desirable place to live - particularly for young professionals. In fact, these same short-falls also make it difficult to attract education professionals to the schools on the mainland and on Ocracoke.
Because of the high turnover rate of refuge managers, the focus and the action plans often change before any plan can be completed. And each new refuge manager has brought with them a different objective and new priorities.
And that is the basis for the current controversy - the low water and salt water intrusion into the lake. Those upset about the condition of the lake have started a campaign to try to bring attention and resolution to the problem. Long before the area surrounding the lake became a waterfowl hunting mecca, it was widely known for its great bass fishing. And locals routinely subsistence fished the shoreline and the causeway to stretch their food meager food budgets by catching perch, catfish, crappie and bream.. But it seems that those species are being replaced with salt water species such as red drum and flounder.
The opponents of the current management plan say that allowing the depth to become so consistently shallow has led to fish kills and that wetlands are being drained. The latter issue, they say, is allowing invasive species of grasses to flourish in some areas. And dredging work on canals leading from Pamlico Sound to the lake have added woes.
The basis of their concerns, they say, is that one of the few draws left to lure recreational fishermen to the area is being lost and that future generations won't be able to gain the potential economic benefit of having a well-maintained fresh water lake.
They also say that the changes at the lake are affecting a number of species of birds. Eagles and ospreys who often could be seen fishing the lake are becoming rarer. And although the total number of birds is up, that there are fewer swans and geese but more ducks.
Supporters of the current management include farmers who have lands bordering the lake. They say that the lower depths have allowed some of their property to drain and given them more land to farm.
If the lake's freshwater fisheries completely collapse and thus negatively affect recreational fishing, it will cost the mainland the lost potential revenues. And Ocracoke Village, the county's golden goose, may find itself being plucked even more in the future as the county tries to find revenues to support the functions of government.
A working group has been formed and they have a website with information at savemattamuskeetlake.net. The motto of the group is written on signs placed around the county - "Save Mattamuskeet Lake".
Perhaps it would be more appropriate to have "Save Hyde County".