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Flag Pond woman’s book for young readers explores need to offer wildlife corridors along busy highways

Photo Contributed • Frances Figart

By Bryan Stevens

For Flag Pond resident Frances Figart, the topic of her book isn’t about the road well traveled, but rather the paths and habitats of the wildlife near those roads and highways that snake their way through the region.

Figart’s book is part educational resource and part introduction to “road ecology,” and it’s written with the aim of appealing to and educating younger readers about some crucial ways people can lend a helping hand to wildlife by ensuring safe passages when animals travel.

“A Search for Safe Passage” is the first young-adult title from Figart, who works as the creative services director for Great Smoky Mountains Association, the book’s publisher.

Following the path

There’s a winding road of a story, too, that led Figart to move to Unicoi County’s most mountainous area a few years back.

“I tricked myself into writing my first book, ‘Seasons of Letting Go: Most of What I know about Truly Living I Learned by Helping Someone Die,’ by blogging about putting my work as an ecotourism professional on hiatus to be a caregiver for my mother in Kentucky, helping her die a dignified death, and then reinventing myself and my career by moving to Asheville, North Carolina, in 2013,” Figart explained. “When I moved to Asheville, I was single, alone in the world with no parents, no siblings, and no children.

“I knew two people in town, and I set my sights on becoming the editor of The Laurel of Asheville.”

Though she bought a house in the city, she said her hope was to meet someone who was already established in a country setting.

“While I was working on making these things happen, I got a retail job at The Compleat Naturalist in Biltmore Village in order to become more integrated into my new community,” Figart said. “One Saturday morning in July, a man came into the store who had hiked the Appalachian Trail four times under the auspices of the trail name ‘Bodacious.’ Once I determined that he was not a hunter – which was my first question since his hat and shirt were camouflaged – we pretty much hit it off.”

This new friend, John “Bodacious” Beaudet, told Figart that he loved where he lived, somewhere “a little north of Asheville in Flag Pond, Tennessee,” because he had bear, deer, coyote, bobcats and turkeys passing through his property—and he did not shoot them.

Flag Pond, Figart recalled thinking, “sounded idyllic to me.”

“That night, I tried to look it up and had a hard time even finding Flag Pond on a map,” she said. “That made it sound even better.”

She soon made her first trip up to Beaudet’s homestead to see what this place was all about.

“Well, when I saw what Bodacious had created—an off-the-grid, made-by-hand cabin lit with Aladdin lanterns, powered by gravity-fed spring water, and surrounded by what he called a ‘Jappalachian garden’ of native plants, trees, huge boulders and koi ponds, I knew I’d just met a contender for that title (of husband),” Figart said.

A few more months went by and they became engaged, then married on Jan. 1, 2015.

“Now we refer to our place as Beaugarts (Beaudet plus Figart),” Figart explained. “Since I am an editor and writer, we now have electricity and Wi-Fi, and we now see our local bear, deer, coyote, bobcats and turkeys on our trail cameras – though we do not shoot them.”

All in all, a perfect setting in which to write “A Search for Safe Passage.”

Image Contributed • The front cover for Figart’s book, “A Search for Safe Passage.”

Inspiration

Figart was inspired by her work with a collaborative known as Safe Passage: The I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project. Figart engaged the talents of a new publications specialist on GSMA’s Creative Team, and the result is this outstanding debut of book design and illustration for Emma DuFort. The combination of Figart’s interpretive prowess and DuFort’s knowledge of biological detail allowed the duo to present book talks that show how the fictional story relates directly to the real-life issue of wildlife-vehicle collisions near the boundary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Figart even includes in the book the score of a folk song she wrote to ignite the Safe Passage movement.

The book takes a look at road ecology, which is the study of how life is altered for both plants and animals when roads are nearby. The book’s story follows a group of animals that have been named as the Cherokee named them in their myths—Bear, Deer, Owl, Hawk, Woodchuck, Turtle and so on.

The book, the author said, is a modern-day allegory with a moral for anyone who has ever longed for a solution to the global issue of roadkill.

Bringing to life a host of charming characters — including a rhyming firefly, a snake who hisses as he speaks and a nerdy salamander who likes to use scientific names for her friends Figart invites readers to embark on a journey with dignified cast of critters whose personalities are well developed over eight short chapters. When Bobcat and Coyote show up in the middle of the Forest Council meeting looking scary in the light of the full moon, it’s time for Bear, Deer and their animal comrades to make some tough decisions and put their friendships on the line in order to find safe passage and save their own lives.

Compared to the Western United States, Figart said that there is a relatively small amount of federally protected land in the East, and the Smokies and surrounding National Forest lands make up a substantial portion of it.

“From these high-quality habitats, core populations of black bear and many other species serve as source populations for dispersal into surrounding lands,” she said.

Beyond Borders

Figart noted that Europe, Canada, Mexico, and many U.S. states have already created effective wildlife crossings. Recent articles and videos featuring crossing structures in Utah and Texas have been shared widely on social media.

“France was the first to do it,” she said. “It’s been done successfully in the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany. They’ve done it along the Trans-Canada Highway in Banff, Alberta, and in various connected lands throughout Montana, Massachusetts, Florida and Southern California.”

These “safe passages” have also been designed for the White River National Forest near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and in the Snoqualmie Pass area of Interstate 90, Washington State’s transportation corridor over the Cascade Mountains.

“It’s a global issue that has reached a regional tipping point: there is a documented rise in motor vehicle collisions with wildlife in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina,” Figart said. “Now, it’s time for us in the Southern Appalachians to start making changes to our roads so that our iconic species – black bear, elk and white-tailed deer – can cross safely.

Figart said the impetus for her championing of wildlife corridors goes back to her childhood, which she described as idyllic.

“I grew up in Eastern Kentucky at a summer camp for which my parents acted as overseers,” she said. “I spent summer days swimming, canoeing, hiking and horseback riding, immersing myself in a landscape of Appalachian wildlife. The only sadness I recall was seeing animals hit and killed on roads.”

Figart said that in her 30s and 40s, she traveled the world as a tourism professional and lived for a period of time in both Canada and Costa Rica.

“These experiences raised my awareness of wildlife road mortality as a global problem,” she noted.

Taking Action

“When I moved to Flag Pond in 2014 and began to see mangled black bear carcasses along Interstate 26 between my home and my job as a magazine editor in Asheville,” Figart said, “I acknowledged a deep longing – going back to my teen –  to make a difference for the animals in our region.”

In 2017, she got a new job directing the Creative Team at Great Smoky Mountains Association and editing Smokies Life, GSMA’s award-winning magazine.

“At the same time, my compassion for animals being killed on roads led me to join a group of concerned citizens, agencies and organizations that had just begun to address the need for wildlife crossing structures in a 28-mile stretch of Interstate 40 near Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” Figart said. “In February of 2021, with my help, that work became known as Safe Passage: The Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project.

“We launched our web site: smokiessafepassage.org, which allows people to donate to a road mitigation fund,” she added.

The hope, too, is that the book helps young people learn – and teach their adults – why roads need to include wildlife crossing structures.

“And a song I’ve written, ‘Safe Passage: Animals Need a Hand,’ will soon be recorded by a professional band, though you can find my own version now on YouTube,” Figart added.

Figart said people may wonder what has made roadkill become such a big issue.

“The answer has partly to do with climate change,” she said. “As our world warms, wildlife populations need to expand northward. Highways are formidable barriers to this movement. Scientists expect that climate-driven species will eventually be migrating through southeastern North America and into the Appalachians.”

Costs

Figart provided some sobering statistics.

“On a national scale, 1-2 million large mammals are killed each year,” she said.

The collisions with human-driven vehicles cause more than 12 billion in property damage.

The encounters also cause 26,000 human injuries and more than 200 human fatalities each year.

Figart noted that the cost of a deer–vehicle collision averages around $6,000; and running into an elk can cost upwards of $17,000.

She also noted that when vehicles collide with bears, deer and elk crossing in and out of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, both animal and human lives are at stake.

The good news is that nearly 20 federal, state, tribal and non-governmental organizations are now collaborating on Safe Passage: The I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project.

Fact and Fiction

While the book is a work of fiction, it is based on the real-life problem.

“A Search for Safe Passage” tells the story of best friends Bear and Deer who grew up together on the North side of a beautiful Appalachian gorge. In the time of their grandparents, animals could travel freely on either side of a fast-flowing river, but now the dangerous human highway divides their home range into the North and South sides.

Many animals have died on the highway trying to follow the ancient trails, so, to keep everyone safe, Turtle, the elder, has created a law forbidding anyone to try to cross, and a Forest Council has been formed to look for solutions. Hawk and Owl scout the area each day for other ways to travel from North to South, with no luck. But on the night of a full moon, two strangers arrive from the South with news that will lead to tough decisions, a life-changing adventure and new friends joining in a search for safe passage.

“The setting is a microcosm of the Pigeon River Gorge, a beautiful, wild landscape with a treacherous highway bisecting ancient wildlife corridors,” Figart explained. “In the back of the book is an interpretive section about the real-life animals and their actual wildlife crossing needs. It is geared for ages 7 to 13, but it contains allusions and wit for adults to enjoy with kids. Most who have read it say that it’s really for adults, too, and I agree.”

She noted that when I-40 was created in the 1960s, there were no elk in the region and maybe only 500 bears.

“The highway sliced through a mountain landscape where for millennia animals had freely followed ancient wildlife corridors,” Figart said. “Now it cuts Great Smoky Mountains National Park off from large public lands — Cherokee and Pisgah National Forests to the northeast.”

Closer to home, Figart said that Lamar Alexander Rocky Fork State Park and its surrounding lands are just as important for wildlife as the Smokies.

“Rocky Fork … is practically in my own backyard (and) is a key piece of land that connects a much larger roadless area,” she explained. “Surrounded by wilderness, national forest and the Appalachian Trail, Rocky Fork is part of the largest undeveloped tract of land remaining in the Southern Appalachians.”

Figart said the land for the park was purchased to preserve it, and that the land is home to significant species just like in the lands comprising the Smokies.

“Our public lands here comprise high-quality habitats from which black bear and many other species disperse into surrounding lands and provide source populations,” Figart said.

“Go to Mount Mitchell, highest peak in the east, in the late afternoon and look directly west: The mountains you see in the sunset comprise the Rocky Fork watershed,” Figart said. “Or pick up the Appalachian Trail in the Smokies and hike northeast along the spine of the mountains that divide Tennessee and North Carolina for about four days, and you’ll come to Rocky Fork, a Smokies-like swath of forest that offers an ideal getaway for hikers, backpackers, mountain bikers, trout fishers, horseback riders, birders and anyone simply seeking solitude in a pristine mountain setting.”

Figart said Rocky Fork is Appalachia at its very best. “Part of Cherokee National Forest, the 10,000-acre Rocky Fork watershed adjoins the Bald Mountain Roadless Area, the largest area of its kind between Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah national parks,” she noted.

“Just as I-40 bisects wildlife corridors beside the Smokies’ boundary, I-26 cuts across ancient trails in our biologically diverse Cherokee National Forest,” Figart explained. “Just as I did when we were saving Rocky Fork from overdevelopment a few years ago, I’ve now written or helped direct dozens of articles about the Safe Passage project. Through all this work, I have come to the realization that humans must refuse to accept roadkill as a natural part of traveling in our modern world. There are viable and affordable solutions that have succeeded all over the planet – and the time has come to do something about this issue in our biologically diverse Southern Appalachian landscape.”

Optimistic Outlook

Her hope is that, once they are built, the Pigeon River Gorge wildlife crossings can become the model for other crossing structures that will eventually also make I-26 and many other roads in Tennessee safer for wildlife and for the people who live here.

When writing the book, she chose to focus on a young audience.

“Our collaborative has been speaking with other groups across the nation doing similar projects,” Figart said. “We’ve talked to folks at the White River National Forest near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and also in Liberty Canyon, where a large, vegetated wildlife overpass is planned to span the Ventura Highway in Agoura Hills, California, saving Los Angeles cougars from extinction.”

She was looking to the future in picking the audience for her book.

“These projects take time,” she said. “Groups have been collaborating for a decade now and are just beginning to break ground. Kids ages 11 or 12 who read ‘A Search for Safe Passage’ now may become interested in road ecology and may graduate from college in a decade with a degree in something like wildlife engineering.

“They will inherit this work. They will be our future highway engineers and road ecologists, and they will save these species. … I wrote it for the 11- or 12-year-old child I can still remember being, who spent countless hours in the woods near roads in the hope of seeing live wild animals, and who would have loved to read a book like this with her mother.”

Figart is also at work on a sequel to the book that she said will likely be published in 2022.

For more information

Copies of “A Search for Safe Passage” can be purchased at www.smokiesinformation.org

Those interested can learn more about the Safe Passage project at www.smokiessafepassage.org