The Blue Ridge Parkway: Looking down the road

What lies in store for the Blue Ridge Parkway in the 21st century? An upcoming symposium at Appalachian State University aims to address that question. Titled "Imagining the Blue Ridge Parkway for the 21st Century: History, Scenery, Conservation and Community," the April 22-24 event will honor the scenic road's 75th anniversary.

Room for a view: What you see (or don't) along the Blue Ridge Parkway in years to come depends on what we plan for. Photo by Danny Bernstein

"The symposium is an opportunity for the Blue Ridge Parkway, neighbors and visitors to take a look back at where we've come from — but more importantly to think about the future. How can we make sure the Parkway stays relevant for the next 75 years?" Superintendent Phil Francis explains.

The roadway is the most visited national park unit in the country, attracting almost 16 million visitors in 2009, according to National Park Service statistics. "But we've had as many as 20 million in the past," notes Francis. "We need to reconnect with people, especially young people, because they're the future of the Parkway. We need more involvement with our partners — to protect the Parkway from the threats of invasive species, air quality and declining visitation. Camping is down; picnicking is declining in some areas. And we get low visitation by children."

Neva Specht, associate dean of Appalachian State's College of Arts and Sciences, sees the gathering as a chance to present scientific, social and cultural research about the Parkway in a public venue.

"The symposium will have something for every stakeholder, such as academics, elected officials, general visitors and students. Appalachian State has been connected with the Parkway for several years … [and] by hosting on the university campus, we'll attract students so they can see what the Parkway means to them," she notes. "In addition to presentations, there'll be movies, displays, even a 1930s camping demonstration."

But one major group of stakeholders seems conspicuously missing: hikers. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail, for example, follows the Parkway for more than 300 miles.

"We've been building miles of trail along the Parkway as part of North Carolina's Mountains-to-Sea Trail, and people really enjoy them as a way to get out and experience the beauty of the Blue Ridge up close and personal," says Kate Dixon, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. "The trails are one of the best features of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and we hope that more and more people will take the time to enjoy them."

That includes kids. Carolyn Ward of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation will present her work on the TRACK Trail program (see "Trekking With the Wee Ones," March 24 Xpress).

Cherokee specialist Philip Coyle, who teaches anthropology and sociology at Western Carolina University, has been researching the "missing voices" in Parkway history. According to Coyle, "All of the famous Parkway sites were fabricated, including Humpback Rocks Pioneer Farm group, the landscaping at Peaks of Otter, Mabry Mill, and basically every cultural or historical structure on the Parkway. … Places destroyed by the National Park Service are almost too numerous to mention and include the home of Cherokee elder Jerry Wolfe."

Specht hopes the symposium will heighten the Parkway's visibility. "Funding goes to parks that have a high profile; we're all competing for limited resources," she notes.

For Francis, though, it all goes back to the Park Service's original mission: to preserve and protect the national park system's natural and cultural resources. "How we protect the resources is not only the responsibility of the staff," he emphasizes. "We share that responsibility with the public."

"History, Scenery, Conservation and Community" will be held Thursday through Saturday, April 22-24 at Appalachian State University. For details, go to http://blueridgeparkway75.org/events/view/blue_ridge_parkway_75_symposium.

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