Ben Blair photo
Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center
The 12,000-square-foot Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center (MP 384) near Asheville, N.C., includes many LEED design features such as radiant floors, vented walls, and a “green” roof sprouting with native plants. Inside are a series of interactive exhibits, a 22-foot-long I-wall map of the Parkway, a 70-seat theater, a gift shop, and an information/orientation desk.
When Dan Brown returned to the Blue Ridge Parkway as superintendent after a 20-year hiatus from his early days as a ranger, it seemed time had stood still. Couples lounged in lawn chairs at overlooks, families gathered around Sunday picnic spreads, and college students laced up their hiking boots at trailheads.
“What we commonly call the ‘ride awhile, stop awhile’ experience on the Parkway was still really great,” Brown said of his homecoming in 2000.
But the backdrop had changed—and changed for the worse. Air pollution clouded the horizon while encroaching development chipped away at the views.
“A lot of beautiful pastoral scenes that you could previously experience were gone,” said Brown, now retired. “When the Parkway was constructed, it was never envisioned that these rugged mountains would be developed to this level or that so many people would want to live up in the mountains.”
The Parkway is 469 miles long, but only 800 to 1,000 feet wide. It’s an odd and challenging configuration for a national park unit. The Parkway’s character is vulnerable to the whims of more than 4,000 neighboring property owners. Encroaching development along 1,000 miles of linear park boundary threatens the most cherished Parkway quality: its views.
“The road was designed strategically to provide a certain visual experience, so when you come around a bend you would have sweeping, dramatic views of the mountains,” said Leah Greden Mathews, an economics professor at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. “You can’t separate the views from the experience. It is embedded in what the Parkway is.”
Concerned about the cluttering of those views, Mathews and Susan Kask, a fellow economics professor at Warren Wilson College, set out to quantify the scenic value—and more importantly, the economic consequence if that scenery is spoiled.
To do the study, Mathews and Kask surveyed Parkway visitors—lots of them—and gauged their reactions to various scenes. Stunning vistas compared to smoggy peaks smothered by air pollution. Idyllic farmland versus condos, golf courses and billboards.
At first, Mathews wasn’t sure the Parkway’s top brass would like the idea of two women camped out at overlooks cajoling visitors to rifle through the worst images the Parkway had to offer as part of a computer survey. But in fact, they were thrilled.
“For years they had been wanting to figure out how they could measure this, and we offered a set of economic tools that allowed that quantification,” Mathews said.
What Mathews and Kask weren’t prepared for was just how much people love the Parkway. By the end of the project, the two joked about creating their own line of merchandise and memorabilia with the words “We Love the Parkway.”
“We heard that so often,” Matthews said. “People really, really love this place.”
However, Mathews and Kask confirmed the worst in their study. Visitors would come less often if views declined. The study’s results, published in 2004, documented a multi-million-dollar loss to the tourism industry as a result of souring views on the Parkway.
While the solutions are out there, it’s a race against time as acre after acre becomes open to developers. Since 1996, the Conservation Trust for North Carolina has protected 40 properties along the Parkway totaling 30,000 acres.
Richard Broadwell, director of the Conservation Trust, faces a daunting task when picking which tracts to save. There’s not enough money to save them all, so he has to be choosy.
Mostly, Broadwell needs to know how visible a tract is when viewed from different points on the Parkway. In the old days, that meant heading out for extended drives with topo maps and county land records to size up one tract versus another. But not any more. The Conservation Trust created a computer model that tells Broadwell exactly what’s visible from where—for every parcel and from every point on the Parkway in North Carolina.
“You can tell the computer, ‘Look out toward the horizon and tell me what points within a parcel are visible from my viewshed,’” Broadwell said.
The visible tracts light up, just like that. It took years to develop, but this is a crucial tool for conservationists like Broadwell.
He’s constantly looking for funding to protect key tracts threatened by development. A major source comes from various trust funds administered by the state of North Carolina for parks and recreation, clean water, natural resources, and cultural heritage. But whenever a tight budget year hits—which has been the case more often than not in the past decade—the money gets yanked from the trust funds.
Broadwell notes that the Parkway was built during the Depression, under far worse economic times than now.
“Even though this is a really hard time, we should use it as an opportunity to invest in the Parkway for its long-term future,” Broadwell said.
He often works directly with private landowners to protect their land through conservation agreements. Rather than buying property outright—which costs far more—Broadwell finds willing landowners to work with him.
One conservation-minded landowner along the Parkway is Bill Carson, who retired to Little Switzerland, N.C., in 1993 after a career as a NASA contractor. He fell in love with the local mountain culture and even took up weaving.
Carson was weaving at his loom one day while his sister, who was visiting from out of town, casually skimmed the local paper. She spotted a real estate ad for an old apple orchard on the Parkway at Altapass. It fronted 1.7 miles of the Parkway, with dominating views on both sides.
“When we saw they were selling it, we said ‘Oh my God, it will be developed,’” Carson recalled.
So Carson picked up the phone and called the number. It rang just as the landowner was walking in the door of his house. His answering machine was blinking with four other messages from interested buyers, but Carson’s timing was perfect since the landowner hadn’t listened to them yet. Carson bought the land on the spot for $1,000 an acre.
A developer who badly wanted the tract offered Carson top dollar—as much for just five prime acres as Carson had paid for the entire tract. But Carson was dedicated to preserving the land.
“It is a key part of the Parkway,” he said. “If we don’t step in, we are going to kick ourselves for letting it get developed. As years pass, the Parkway erodes. People had begun to build things in viewsheds, and this was an unspoiled place.”
Carson placed a large portion of the orchard in a conservation agreement to ensure it would stay undeveloped forever. He then set about reviving the historic orchards and creating a cultural heritage destination, where families can pick apples, buy jelly and local crafts, hear traditional music, and go on hayrides.
“The Parkway has been a huge gift to the nation, and this is one little way we can express appreciation for that,” Carson said.
In a conservation agreement like Carson’s, the owner keeps the property in his name. He can pass it on to heirs, sell it, keep farming it, even build a house or two; but he voluntarily places legal restrictions on the deed that prevents it from being developed on a large scale. Those legal restrictions stay with the property forever, even when it changes hands.
In exchange, the landowner gets substantial tax write-offs. Grants and donations can sweeten the pot for the property owner. It’s an ideal solution for land-rich, cash-poor farmers who need money for their retirement yet don’t want to sell the family farm.
There’s also an important, yet under-utilized tool for protecting Parkway views: local regulations for building along the Parkway.
The Blue Ridge Parkway passes through 29 counties in North Carolina and Virginia. Most of the governments in those counties have been slow to address rampant development sweeping across the Southern Appalachians. Leah Mathews and Susan Kask didn’t expect their economic study to change that overnight, but their statistics have crept into the dialogue about protecting the Parkway’s scenery. It is an asset, a tangible commodity, and the loss of it carries real economic consequences.
The recession has provided a reprieve from the boom time of recent years, but it shouldn’t be squandered, Mathews said.
“I think we have a little bit of a safety valve for the next five years,” Mathews said. “But we have to be focused to protect land before things swing back around. I am hopeful we can protect enough land that we have that experience along the Parkway protected forever.”
George Ellison, a naturalist and author in Bryson City, N.C., can name—in order—every Parkway overlook for a 70-mile stretch from Asheville to Cherokee, by memory. Ellison appreciates the Parkway as a conduit for mountain exploration, providing access to places that would otherwise take a couple of days of hiking to reach.
“It has been a wonderful thing to have,” Ellison said. “By allowing people to get out and enjoy the natural world, they appreciate and want to protect that.”
In that sense, threats to the Parkway have spawned conservation plans throughout the overall region.
“We need to be careful as we develop these mountains that we do so in a way that doesn’t destroy the values that made them important in the first place,” said Parkway Superintendent Phil Francis.