History and the GMP, Part 2: An argument for alternative C

History and the GMP, Part 2: An argument for alternative C

(Originally posted on Virtual Blue Ridge’s Blue Ridge Parkway Blog, July 2, 2008)

In this and the next several posts, I’m trying to give a historically-informed analysis of the “preliminary alternatives” recently announced for the public’s consideration and commentary to help the Parkway staff writes a General Management Plan for the park. Today’s topic? The comments I submitted in response to Question 1. Read the spring 2008 GMP newsletter and learn about the preliminary alternatives here.

Question 1. Is one of the three preliminary alternatives (A,B,C) already close to your idea of the best way to manage the Blue Ridge Parkway? If so, which one, and how might you modify it to make it closer to your interests and concerns?

Of the three alternatives presented, Alternative C most closely represents my vision for future management of the Blue Ridge Parkway. This approach appeals to me largely because it recognizes and builds upon the Parkway’s historic connectedness to the region through which it winds. Additionally, its flexibility and adaptability honor the Parkway’s past evolution in response to changing times, social pressures, and design ideals.

As a scholar who has spent over 17 years studying the Parkway’s history, I find many elements of Alternative C to be truer to the Parkway’s origins than the plans described for Alternative B. This is the case despite the fact that alternative B is billed as the choice that would emphasize “original parkway design” and “traditional driving experience,” implying that B, not C, is the alternative most in keeping with Parkway history.

Page 4 of the “Preliminary Alternatives” publication notes that Alternative C would entail management of the Parkway “as an experience that is more integrated with the larger region’s resources and economy.” These words would warm the hearts of the citizens of Virginia and North Carolina who lobbied to establish the Parkway in the 1930s. The most prominent of those early Parkway enthusiasts, indeed, were people with close ties to the tourism businesses that already by that time dotted the region and dominated the imaginations of many civic leaders, especially in the Asheville region. Those leaders envisioned the Parkway as a preeminent economic engine for the mountain region, one that would funnel tourists to local hotels and other attractions. Without the energies of these citizens, who made the case that a park-to-park highway was worth New Deal funding and should be routed near Asheville, the Parkway as we know it would not have come into existence. The efforts of state officials in Virginia and North Carolina, furthermore, assured the completion of the land acquisition that created the Parkway corridor. Thus, in many important respects, the Parkway has always been a strongly local and regional – as opposed to purely national – project.

For years after the 1930s, as the National Park Service took firmer control of the project, however, tensions developed between local and regional interests and the Parkway. Often, that was as it should have been; the Park Service had to protect the Parkway boundary and the park from local trespass, misuse, and exploitation by embittered citizens and some of the very tourist interests that had originally supported the park. In many respects, nevertheless, the story of the Parkway from the 1930s has been the story of the Park Service’s attempts to reach a sustainable equilibrium in its relationship with the region.

Adopting Alternative C might be a welcome step toward that desired equilibrium. A flexible, regionally-oriented management plan, it would allow the Parkway to recognize and acknowledge its own role as a player within a larger region, and as a park whose fate is inextricably bound up with that region. Taking this fact as a starting point for management promises a realistic and authentic decision-making process that accounts for the myriad effects that changes in the region continue to have upon the park. Additionally, regionally-oriented thinking about the park offers exciting possibilities for new interpretive directions that would more fully tell the Parkway’s history to the public, as well as helping the public to understand the issues that have continually shaped that history.

Alternative B, meanwhile, proposes that the parkway would continue to be thought of and managed as “a traditional, self-contained, scenic recreational driving experience and designed landscape.” Trying to maintain the parkway as a “self-contained” entity is both out of congruence with the park’s history and unrealistic in light of its present context and challenges. Additionally, past attempts to seal the Parkway off from the region have been the source of many a conflict (witness the 1950s hullabaloo over Parkway tolls and enhanced visitor facilities along the Parkway, discussed in Chapter 7 ofSuper-Scenic Motorway); working in a more open and collaborative way with regional interests, while challenging, would seem likely to produce greater support for the Parkway in the communities that make up its “borrowed landscape.”

That said, there are three components of Alternative C that I would suggest be modified in order to assure that the flexible, open process does not destroy things that are central to the Parkway’s original purposes or bring changes that substantially degrade the visitor experience:

Concessions: Despite the fact that concessions policy has historically been a source of conflict with regional interests, I would suggest retaining Alternative B’s recommendations for concessions service (“Continue to find ways to provide viable concession services at all existing locations . . .,” page 6). Perhaps there are ways to provide more opportunities for local communities to participate in concessions (farmer’s markets? local foods in restaurants?), but for visitors, especially those who are camping, it would be impractical and frustrating to have to leave the Parkway for every bag of ice or package of marshmallows. Although what is offered in local communities is often extensive, the fact remains that local communities are often a considerable distance from the Parkway recreation areas. In the age of high gas prices and global warming, maintaining some limited concessions facilities on the Parkway seems wise.

Campgrounds: I would suggest retaining Alternative B’s recommendations about RV sites in campgrounds (e.g. “Upgrade existing RV sites in select campgrounds with water and electrical hookups,” p. 7) instead of taking the more expansive approach (especially in terms of widening roads, expanding turning radii, and enlarging parking) to providing for RVs that Alternative C proposes. Nothing about Alternative C’s general approach dictates that the Parkway must pave over more ground to open its campgrounds to huge and ostentatious RVs of whatever size, to the detriment of the quieter, simpler (tent-based) camping experiences that have long been part of the Parkway experience. Again, in an age of rising environmental consciousness, accommodating the Parkway fully to gas-guzzling RVs and other large vehicles seems to send the wrong message and actually work against many of the Parkway’s purposes as identified on p. 2 of the “Preliminary Altneratives” document (including conservation, and “high quality scenic and recreational experiences”).

Partnerships: Although I myself am a member of the Board of a partner organization (Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation), I would urge that the Parkway approach the partnerships portion of Alternative C with caution. As history shows, private entities are all too willing to exploit the Parkway for private gain. Maintaining an appropriate balance that makes room for private partnerships that support the Parkway’s mission while reining in private – especially commercial – interests that (overtly or covertly) subvert the public interest will be an ongoing challenge. Therefore, I would encourage more conservative language about partnerships in Alternative C, perhaps language that is closer to what is in Alternative A.

In conclusion, I advocate adoption of Alternative C, with the caveats that the park staff continue to vigilantly protect the Parkway from private exploitation at the expense of the public interest and retain the quiet, noncommercial experience the Parkway was intended (especially by its early NPS leadership) to provide.

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