The scenic beauty of western North Carolina has helped make the Blue Ridge Parkway one of the most popular attractions in the national park system.
The 469-mile parkway was created in the 1930s to take travelers across rugged territory between Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and the Great Smoky Mountains near the North Carolina-Tennessee border. It was finally completed in 1987, with a last link going in near Grandfather Mountain, according to the University of North Carolina’s Digital Blue Ridge Parkway website, which describes driving on it as “an unfolding series of often breathtaking spaces” and “peaceful farm scenes.”
But the views that parkway motorists take in are primarily of privately owned property. With the number of parkway visitors rising to about 14 million per year, and more than a million in tourism dollars generated annually, temptation has been growing among landowners to convert the bucolic landscape into less-than-scenic roadside commercial ventures, said Reid Wilson, executive director of the Conservation Trust for North Carolina.
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“The National Park Service over the years has done a number of surveys of parkway visitors, and when people asked what is the most important factor in drawing them there, the answer almost always is ‘the views,’” said Wilson. “And when visitors are asked, ‘If the scenic vistas were significantly downgraded, would you continue to come?’ the answer is ‘no.’”
“The parkway has 4,400 neighbors,” he added. “A lot of those properties could be developed at some point, and that would ruin the views, the water quality and the forests.”
Recognizing the potential impact of a loss of scenic land, then-Gov. Jim Hunt in 1996 appointed the Year of the Mountains Commission, which designated the Conservation Trust for N.C. to lead land-protection efforts along the parkway. Since then, the trust has protected more than 32,000 acres in some 60 locations by purchasing property as well as convincing private owners to adopt conservation easements.
“One of the recommendations from the commission was that much more needed to be done to preserve forest and streams, but also the vistas and the local economic benefits of the Blue Ridge Parkway, since so many people come to visit it and stay in the inns and hotels in the gateway communities,” Reid explained.
While the Blue Ridge Parkway may be one of North Carolina’s top tourism assets, the Conservation Trust for N.C. was formed in 1991 to work with local conservation trust funds across the state to protect delicate watersheds and ecosystems.
About $14 million in grants are distributed to 23 local agencies each year for strategic programs, such as the Upper Neuse Clean Water Initiative that led to a watershed protection fee of 1.5 cents per 100 gallons of water used in the city of Raleigh.
“It may only amount to $7 a year for a typical family of four, but it adds up to more than $2 million per year, and almost all of that is used to protect the land upstream from Falls Lake, which is Raleigh’s drinking water supply,” Wilson said.
The Conservation Trust for N.C. also operates has a revolving fund of $4 million that conservation groups may use to make time-sensitive land purchases and pay back at a later date. About half of the amount is out on loan at any given time, Wilson said.
Cynthia Satterfield, director of the Eno River Association, said her group not only receives funding through the Upper Neuse Clean Water Initiative but also benefits from the “common voice” that the Conservation Trust for N.C. provides for land conservationists in the state.
“Despite being in different geographic areas, we have a similar interest – and that is adequate funding for land conservation,” Satterfield said. “The Conservation Trust provides us with the data and information that we need to do our best work. And they also push boundaries to inspire innovation and help lead the charge on resources, such as grants.”
Wilson and other land trust representatives visit Washington and Raleigh to help promote increased government funding and tax incentives for landowners who want to conserve their property. North Carolina formerly had such a tax credit, but it was repealed by lawmakers in 2013.
Reid said a third priority for the Conservation Trust for N.C. is bringing young people on board the conservation movement.
“We think it is very important to connect people to the outdoors, especially young people,” Wilson said. “Instead of spending lots of time on the phone or sitting on the couch, we offer three programs to engage and employ young adults.”
About 85 individuals worked for the Conservation Trust last year doing environmental education, as well as hands-on conservation work such as removing invasive species and improving features in local and state parks.
The agency hires about 50 teens and young adults for short stints to live in groups outdoors and conduct environmental field work.
“We want them to develop a lifelong bond to the outdoors and learn a lot about themselves as they work and live together with people they don’t know for seven weeks,” Wilson said. “What happens to these kids after that course of time is amazing.”
Donations made to the Conservation Trust for N.C. this season will be used to expand youth conservation programs, as well as to secure additional threatened land along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
“We are working with landowners on four different properties along the parkway that we hope to protect by end of the year or early 2017,” Wilson said. The sites are near the Little Switzerland community, near Waynesville and Cherokee, and north of Blowing Rock in Watauga County.
Conservation Trust for North Carolina
1028 Washington St.
Raleigh, N.C. 27605
Contact: Reid Wilson, 919-828-4199
Description: For 25 years, the Conservation Trust for North Carolina has helped save the places you love – streams, forests, farms, scenic vistas, wildlife habitat, parks and trails. We work with local land trusts, landowners and communities to protect these natural treasures so that everyone in North Carolina can enjoy safe drinking water, clean air, fresh local foods and recreational opportunities for generations to come. By doing so, we promote greater individual and community health. We implement our mission in three ways: we protect natural lands along the Blue Ridge Parkway, we assist 23 local nonprofit land trusts so that they can conserve more land in their communities and we connect people to the outdoors.
Donations needed: We need financial contributions to support two key programs:
1. Protecting natural and scenic lands along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
2. Our N.C. Youth Conservation Corps, which provides paid summer jobs to 16-24 year-olds to work outdoors improving public access to parks and trails across the state. The NCYCC is a comprehensive youth development program that uses the natural world as a platform for teaching environmental stewardship, job and life skills, leadership, community service and personal responsibility.
$10 would buy: One meal for a N.C. Youth Conservation Corps crew of 10 young adults.
$20 would buy: Gasoline for a van that transports a N.C. Youth Conservation Corps crew from camp site to work site.
$50 would buy: Hand tools for a N.C. Youth Conservation Corps crew.