Photos courtesy of Houck Medford and the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation
Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation director Houck Medford has made it a personal mission to preserve the Parkway for the enjoyment of all. Above: the Appalachian State University cycling team.
When Houck Medford was a volunteer on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Waynesville, N.C., in the late 1990s, his job was to rove from one overlook to another offering directions to visitors, suggest trails, share the names of peaks, and offer tidbits of Parkway history.
His official volunteer uniform, which looked a lot like a ranger’s, was a magnet for tourists. But they rarely had questions. Mostly, they wanted to tell him their Parkway stories and memories, so Medford listened.
“It was like putting the needle on a record,” Medford said. “They all had an intimate personal story of the Blue Ridge Parkway.”
Medford had grown up in Waynesville, where hiking and exploring along the Parkway with his father had been a favorite pastime. But coming into contact with hundreds of visitors during his volunteer work, he realized just how much the American public loves the Parkway.
Medford retired early, sold his dental practice, and created the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation in 1997. The Parkway Foundation has a simple mission: to support and promote the Parkway in ways the National Park Service can’t. Essentially a philanthropic organization, the Foundation leverages funding from private donors, grants, other foundations and corporations for special projects and programs on the Parkway.
Of course, the wish list from year to year is a long one, but the Foundation has a three-part formula when identifying what to fund.
“It has to enhance the quality of visitor experience, it has to have lasting value and it has to provide for the margin of excellence,” Medford said. “The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation has made a conscious decision not to cross the fence and fund operations. Once you cross that fence, there is no coming back.”
That means you won’t find the Foundation paying the light bill for visitor centers or salaries for basic park staff. But it would pay for new exhibits inside the visitor center or for the salary of a special project coordinator.
For example, the Foundation this year is funding a program called Kids in Parks, which includes a staff position.
“I think of all the issues with all the national parks; the next generation is everyone’s worry,” Medford said.
Heading up to the Parkway and chatting with visitors at overlooks is still one of Medford’s favorite things to do on the weekend. It helps him to stay focused on the Foundation’s core mission.
“It reinforces our story that the Parkway is really about the people, more so than the views,” Medford said. “It is an experience.”
Medford has made it a personal project to amass an amazing collection of photos on the Parkway capturing people in the landscape: people bicycling, people running, people picnicking, people walking their dogs, people with their motorcycles.
“Anyone we see we say, ‘Can we spend some time with you and photograph you and your family?’” Medford said. “It is really about finding the intimacy of the moment and the subject.”
Of course, Medford can’t resist the landscape photography of the Parkway. When visiting Waynesville, he often gets up before sunrise and heads up to the Pounding Mill overlook.
“It’s 5 a.m. and there will be five photographers sitting there, all waiting for the sun, waiting for the light,” Medford said. He’s captured the sunrise there dozens of times but will keep going back.
“That’s part of the wonder of the Blue Ridge Parkway,” Medford said. “Every time you go its different.”
Margin of excellence
The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation has provided millions in funding since its inception in 1997. Here are some highlights:
• Education pavilion at Linville Falls Picnic area
• Junior Ranger activities for youth
• Kids in Parks outreach
• Visitor center exhibits, trail kiosks and wayside historical and nature displays
• Ecological initiatives, from endangered species surveys to remote cameras to monitor wildlife movements
• Scenic conservation of adjacent land
• Trail construction
• New restrooms at Bass Lake and Graveyard Fields