Fans of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were relieved last week when the state Division of Motor Vehicles resumed sales of a unique license plate that features a black bear in profile against green mountains.
The cute bear is a cash cow for Friends of the Smokies, a nonprofit group that provides sustenance to the mountain park. But park supporters worry that the bear's days are numbered.
More than 20,000 North Carolina car owners pay $30 each year - on top of the standard $28 DMV fee - for the privilege of decorating their bumpers with the Smokies license plate. DMV keeps $10, and Friends of the Smokies gets the other $20.
Friends of the Smokies collected $430,000 in North Carolina license plate revenues in 2011. This two-state group has raked in $2.7 million from the North Carolina plate since 1999, and another $6.7 million from a Smokies plate in Tennessee.
"The plate is a huge resource," said Holly Demuth, North Carolina director for Friends of the Smokies. "It is one North Carolinian at a time making a huge impact on continuing our Great Smoky Mountains park and keeping it great."
The black-bear plate issued by DMV last week reflected a small design change that also will show up in coming months on full-color plates sponsored by other groups.
The individual license number is printed on a white rectangle, instead of a color background, to make it easier to read. DMV will issue redesigned "Support Our Troops" plates in the next few weeks, after supplies of the old style are used up.
This minor redesign is a harbinger of bigger changes on the way.
Last year, the General Assembly moved to eliminate the variety of multicolor designs used on these eye-catching license plates. They serve as mini-billboards and raise money for causes from the mountains to the sea.
Beneficiaries include the N.C. Coastal Federation and the N.C. Tennis Foundation. The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation is the top money-maker, with a green-and-yellow plate that brought in $530,000 last year.
Most of the 165 special plates that promote universities, hobbies and charities use a standard white background and the state's "First in Flight" decor, with sea oats and the Wright Brothers' biplane. Each plate has space for a small logo or design that sometimes is inscrutable.
That's pretty much the legislature's preferred look for all of them.
The General Assembly decreed last year that, starting in 2015, DMV shall issue standardized plates to replace all the pretty ones - including the revised Smokies plate that was issued last week. The new design must be "easily read by the human eye and by cameras installed along roadways as part of tolling and speed enforcement," the legislation said.
But is this really necessary? Probably not, said Barry Mickle, operations director for the N.C. Turnpike Authority.
Standardized plates would make life easier for toll collectors that use cameras to identify cars, Mickle said. But this technology has improved quickly in the past few years. The cameras used now on the state's first toll road, the Triangle Expressway, are smarter than your average bear.
They aren't perfect - they sometimes mistake a "B" for an "8" - but the TriEx toll-collection cameras read these pretty license plates just fine. They recognize the "SM" stacked vertically, instead of horizontally, as part of every Smokies license number.
"What we've seen from our cameras is they are all reading them very well," Mickle said.
The Smokies plate money helps the National Park Service pay for exhibits, schoolchildren's field trips, toilets and other visitor amenities. It bankrolls efforts to reintroduce elks, protect bears and combat the woolly adelgid, a voracious pest that kills hemlocks.
Its attractive design is part of its financial power.
"We know that many people buy full-color plates solely because of their appearance, not because they're necessarily supporting a particular cause," Demuth said. "We're concerned that a less attractive plate will be less popular and generate less revenue."
There's a chance the General Assembly will change its mind about this.
In an eleventh-hour amendment added as a contradictory compromise to the license plate bill last year, the legislature also ordered DMV and other agencies to study the whole thing. They're supposed to report back, sometime this spring, on whether the 2015 phase-out is actually a good idea.