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With illustrated book, Smokies partners lobby elementary schoolers in the effort to stem animal road deaths

A Safe Passage image 1.jpeg
Emma DuFort
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Emma DuFort illustrated "A Search for Safe Passage"

Frances Figart still remembers words from her mother along drives they took through the countryside.

"We’d see a dead fox or a dead coyote and she would say ‘I wish automobiles had never been invented,’” she recalled. “And that stuck in my mind.”

Over the years, as Figart traveled the world as a magazine editor, she came to see animal deaths as a global problem. But as creative services director with the Great Smoky Mountains Association, Figart saw a unique way to contribute to the effort of stemming those deaths in this region.

Figart is the author of “A Search for Safe Passage,” an illustrated paperback book written mainly for pre-teens. The story casts bears, deer, foxes, racoons, turtles, woodchucks and other wildlife as characters in a story of everpresent struggle — animal vs. motor vehicle. The Great Smoky Mountains Association is the publisher.

"It occurred to me that if an 11-year-old is reading this book today, in another 11 years, they’re going to be graduating from college and maybe they’re going to have the wildlife engineering degree or the road ecology degree that’s going to be part of what solves these problems,” Figart said.

The development of the interstate highway system—41,000 miles of coast-to-coast, border-to-border roadway—had a severe impact on the travel patterns of wildlife.

"I-40 is a death trap for a lot of wildlife, particularly near Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is incredibly biologically diverse,” said Jeffrey Hunter, a senior program manager with the National Parks Conservation Association.

Hunter said animal deaths in this region were largely anecdotal until 2019. Since then, weekly driving surveys and 120 cameras along a 28-mile stretch of I-40 put hard numbers behind the the deaths. Hunter said officials recorded 103 dead bears over three years.

Seven wilderness and conservation groups are behind a coalition to stem those numbers. On one end, they’re lobbying legislators to fund wildlife overpasses and culverts. On the other, they’re appealing to drivers to slow down. Children reading the book could bend the ears of their parents behind the wheel, Figart said.

"I think the Safe Passage collaborative is an example of how organizations with different cultures, different missions, different priorities, can come together in common cause and solve a seemingly intractable issue,” Hunter said.

Hunter said the federal government recently set aside $350 million for wildlife management efforts around this issue, but that competition for this money is stiff, with needs all over the country similar to those within the Great Smokies. Hunter said North Carolina is about to construct its first wildlife overpass, at Stecoah Gap, where the Appalachian Trail crosses State Highway 143.

Figart’s book is part of the effort to build support for more of these projects. No animals are struck or killed in the book. Instead, wildlife creatures seemingly with little in common form a forest council to steer one another to safe passage over and under roadways and also keep an eye on how humans help or hurt their efforts.

"At first I thought I wasn’t the right person to do it, and then I thought about it and realized I was the perfect person to do it because I’m a writer but I don’t know the science,” the author said. “I do not have all those details in my head that would keep me bogged down in the weeds, and so I was able to write it from a very general perspective that would be perfect for a fifth grader … I did study fables and morality plays when I was an English lit major, and I think a lot of that stuff came back into play when I started working on this.”

“A Search for Safe Passage” has already found its way into the hands of fifth-graders in Waynesville and Hendersonville and some of the students from Hendersonville recently spoke on this issue with Gov. Roy Cooper.

Figart lives just over the North Carolina state line in Flag Pond, Tenn. She said her work around this issue is far from over. Her commitment is so inspired, she went so far as to compose and record a song to complement the book. The Asheville band The Fates recorded it and made a video for “Safe Passage: Animals Need a Hand.”

“This is, for me, a great service to be able to commit myself to something I’m passionate about, make it part of my job and make a difference,” she said. "I like to say in collaboration is the salvation of the world. We certainly have a long way to go, but we have certainly got an amazing start.”

Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.