Beauty under siege

Forests and development threaten the lush, winding garden that entices millions of drivers every year.

Staff WriterJuly 4, 2010 

  • 469 miles of road, from Shenandoah National Park to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

    81,785 acres of parkway land

    Sept. 11, 1935 Date construction began, at Cumberland Knob, N.C.

    6,047 feet Highest elevation at Richland Balsam Overlook, near Waynesville

    649 feet Lowest elevation, at the James River in Virginia

    26 tunnels along the road

    17 million visitors in 2008

    382 overlooks/parking areas

    Sources: Blue Ridge Parkway 75; National Park Service

  • National Park Service: Owns and operates the Blue Ridge Parkway.

    Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway: A private, nonprofit organization affiliated with the National Park Service that aims to preserve, promote and enhance the Parkway.

    Conservation Trust for North Carolina: A private land conservation group that focuses on protecting land along the parkway.

    Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation: A nonprofit group supporting natural, historic and cultural resources and capital projects along the parkway in North Carolina and Virginia,

    Blue Ridge Parkway Association: An organization of businesses near the parkway, Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

    Blue Ridge Parkway 75: A coalition of groups celebrating the parkway's 75th anniversary this year.

  • Staff writer Martha Quillin has worked for The N&O since 1987 and for years was the state rover, going wherever needed to cover trials, hurricanes and human interest stories. Her current assignments include military affairs.

— Stowed in the Blue Ridge Parkway archives are more than 850 architectural drawings from the 1930s depicting every curving mile of the scenic road, down to where wildflowers would be planted, picnic tables placed and trees cut to open panoramic mountain vistas.

Viewed this way, as a 469-mile-long garden whose meandering path is a two-lane highway, the Blue Ridge Parkway is the largest landscape architecture project in the history of the United States.

Seventy-five years after construction started, the parkway's collective gardener, the National Park Service, struggles to keep the forest and the development beyond it from closing in.

Though the parkway passes through four national forests and other protected land as it stretches from the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina, two-thirds of the land adjacent to the road is privately held. On much of that, nothing prevents a landowner from building a house or a condominium complex or clear-cutting the trees in plain view of one of the nation's most-visited parks.

"You have no idea a piece of land is privately held until the owner goes and builds something there," says Rusty Painter, land protection director for the Conservation Trust of North Carolina, one of several lands trusts that have worked for years to protect the parkway "viewshed" by purchasing adjacent land or negotiating conservation easements.

"You might have 10 acres of protected land, but it only takes one acre with one giant house on it to essentially destroy the integrity of that view," Painter said.

Protecting the land

Over the years, the Conservation Trust has worked with other land trusts and government agencies to protect more than 30,000 acres along the Parkway. This year, the organization is pushing a bill introduced in both houses of Congress that would appropriate $75 million over five years to buy land and easements for 50,000 additional high-priority acres along the parkway.

Even on land over which it does have control, the Park Service is at a disadvantage. A decade of tight budgets has forced the loss of about a third of the parkway's maintenance staff, leaving 80 people to mow the grassy shoulders, trim the trees, keep up the campgrounds and tend the historic buildings.

Seasonal employees and a legion of volunteers help, but in some places overlooks are completely blocked by overgrown trees, and sections of road were closed into the spring because of winter rockslides that had to cleared.

"It really makes the operation more challenging," says Phil Francis, parkway superintendent.

On the parkway's 75th anniversary, the view has other threats, too. Especially where it comes close to urban areas - Asheville and Blowing Rock, N.C., and Roanoke and Wintergreen, Va. - trespass by adjacent landowners is a problem. Neighbors have cut parkway trees to improve the views from their porches, built driveways, sheds or garages on parkway land or used it to dump trash. In more rural areas, professional poachers have illegally harvested so much galax, black cohosh and ginseng off parkway lands that local, legal hunters are unable to find the plants to sell.

Dangers abound

Natural pests harass the parkway; the woolly adelgid is busy killing Fraser firs at higher elevations. Smog has helped diminish ridgetop views in some areas by as much 80 percent since the road was built.

But the biggest problem, Francis says, is protecting the parkway views, those carefully imagined landscapes painted in the minds of long-ago architects and brought to life through the windshields of as many as 20 million visitors a year.

If too many of those pristine views are lost, visitors have said in surveys, they'll stop coming. They will stop spending their money in the hotels and rental cabins, restaurants, gift shops and attractions that bring an estimated $2.3 billion a year to communities near the parkway in the two states.

The parkway got its start as a means of bringing jobs and money to the mountains. It was discussed in various terms by tourism promoters in North Carolina and Virginia for a couple of years before being authorized as a public works project under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal in 1933. It fell to the states to gather the land for the roadway, which would then be deeded to the National Park Service.

In her book, "A Blue Ridge Parkway History," Anne Mitchell Whisnant writes that North Carolina highway officials realized early on that the right-of-way would need to be wider than the prescribed 200 feet. Though it would be that narrow in some places in Virginia, in this state, officials often took as much as 800 feet, angering property owners who waited years for payment but securing a broader buffer between the road and what might happen in the future beyond its borders.

Even that wasn't enough to protect the area around the Orchard at Altapass, an apple orchard planted by the Clinchfield Railroad in 1908 on a south-facing slope north of the community of Spruce Pine.

Bill Carson, retired from IBM and living in Spruce Pine, bought the orchard with his sister in the mid-1990s when she saw an ad in the local weekly saying it was for sale. Four other people had left messages on the seller's answering machine inquiring about the property, including a neighbor who wanted to combine it with his land and build houses on it. Carson and his sister happened to call as the seller was walking in the door. He answered the phone, and they made a deal.

Sitting in a low gap in the ridgeline with direct access to the parkway, the orchard is plainly visible to southbound drivers.

Houck Medford started the nonprofit Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation in 1997 to raise money for parkway projects that would otherwise go unfunded. Medford calls what might have been built on the orchard property "trophy houses."

Instead, parkway travelers approaching the property see the big red apple barn against the green trees and follow the gravel drive to see what's inside.

There's a general store, with mountain crafts and jars of jam and apple butter. In the fall, there are 40 varieties of apples. And year-round, several days a week, there's a different kind of picking, with live music by local performers. People come from several counties to listen and dance on the wood floor of the former packing house.

"We can't save it all, but we can save the good stuff," says Carson, who believes that keeping the land from being developed helps preserve mountain culture.

There is also a broader conservation effort in the area. Around the orchard, the Conservation Trust has since protected four other tracts, one of which included a 1.5-mile section of the Revolutionary War-era Overmountain Victory Trail. A developer had laid out plans for vacation homes on it.

Though the recession has slowed the pace of development on land adjacent to the parkway, it has also crimped the budgets of private and public land trusts.

A recent ad offered for sale a 48-acre site along the parkway that includes Tanbark Ridge near Asheville. The ad touted "beautiful old growth woods with spectacular bold creek and amazing native floral!" It mentioned a trail that connects with the Mountain-to-Sea Trail. All for $699,000.

Landowner's conscience

"It's an opportunity," says Painter of the Conservation Trust, who knows the property and says a land trust in the area would like to buy it. "We just need money."

Joe Arrington won't get that kind of money for the land he just sold to the Conservation Trust to keep it from being developed.

His father and grandfather bought a 180-acre tract near Balsam Gap, south of Waynesville, in the 1930s for $3 to $5 an acre. They sold a piece from the mountaintop down to the parkway when the road came through in the 1940s, and kept the rest for hunting grouse, gathering firewood and as a hedge against poverty in their old age.

Now Arrington is 69, retired from his job as a rural mail carrier, and he needs some cash. He could have sold to a developer - in the boom years, the land appraised for $15,000 an acre - but he chose to settle for a lower price and have the land protected so his granddaughters can see the same views he has enjoyed his whole life. He sold 64 acres to the Conservation Trust of North Carolina and donated 46.

Rarified air

The Conservation Trust plans to turn Arrington's 110 acres over to the National Park Service. He kept the 25 acres around his house.

Pulling his Toyota pickup off a parkway overlook at Looking Glass Rock, several miles south of the property and more than 5,000 feet above sea level, he takes a deep breath. The air smells different. It's cool. It tastes like Christmas trees and spring water, as it did when he used to ride horses into these mountains as a teenager. The same as when he and his wife used to have picnics in the area when their children were young.

Arrington is not against all development, he says. He wishes that those who do build within sight of the parkway would do so with some sensitivity: smaller houses, more natural colors, less tree-clearing.

Francis, the parkway superintendent, says the parkway is beginning discussions with the 29 county governments along the parkway that might eventually result in that kind of cooperation.

The parkway, Arrington says, "provided jobs at the end of the Depression. But it's not like going out and buying a new car, and then it's gone.

"What they did left us a legacy. It becomes a part of you." or 919-829-8989

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