A two-state solution for the Parkway's woes

By Anne Mitchell Whisnant

Published in The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)

May 5, 2006

DURHAM--America's beloved Blue Ridge Parkway, the scenic road winding through the North Carolina and Virginia mountains, is in crisis. Though it has been the most popular attraction in the National Parks system since the 1950s, and today draws more visitors than Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon combined, its annual operating budget is only about half that of those parks.

Now, with the entire National Park Service budget increasingly inadequate to cover even basic costs, the Parkway is in serious trouble. This year, 45 of 237 permanent staff positions lie vacant, including 40 percent of positions in the office that manages landscape development, historical and cultural resources, and planning. Road repairs, grass mowing and restroom cleaning have been curtailed; improvements to Parkway facilities are almost unthinkable. Meanwhile, encroaching development threatens the Parkway's magnificent views.

Increasingly, travelers will feel the pinch. This year, the Parkway did not have enough money to print the Official Map and Guide pamphlets that most of us rely on to remind us how far it is from, say, Cumberland Knob to Craggy Gardens. Printing the maps became possible only after a coalition of private Parkway "partner organizations" stepped in with funds.

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And things are likely to get worse. Recently, President Bush directed park superintendents to develop five-year plans for absorbing a 20 to 30 percent reduction in tax-funded appropriation support. Across the country, park staffs are quietly identifying cuts to visitor services and facility operations.

Over the long haul, only increased federal funding can solve this disastrous situation. But in the meantime, for the Blue Ridge Parkway, there might be another solution to the budget woes: the two states that helped create the Parkway might step in now to help save it.

Such a solution would be faithful to the Parkway's history, which I have been studying for the past 15 years. Though many have forgotten this now, the Parkway originated in the 1930s as the brainchild of citizens in North Carolina and Virginia. Early funding for the project was a joint federal-state affair. The two states bought nearly half of the Parkway's 80,000 acres and donated them to the federal government, which funded and managed Parkway development.

Citizens in both states provided much of the vision for the project. That vision, to be sure, drew in healthy measure on pro-business boosterism that projected the Parkway as a driver of accelerated tourism development in the mountains. But that boosterism mixed with a public-spirited idea for a world-class road that would guide anyone -- regardless of physical ability or ability to pay -- to and through some of America's most gorgeous places.

Cooperating with federal agencies and private construction contractors, North Carolina and Virginia gave America a glorious scenic road and got a great influx of tourists in return.

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Some of the citizens who made this possible worked for state government. In North Carolina the crucial person was R. Getty Browning, the senior locating and claims engineer for the State Highway Commission (precursor to today's Department of Transportation). A hiker and hunter who was said to be able to "outwalk any man and outtalk him too," Browning handled highway location and land acquisition for the state from the 1920s to the 1960s, helping make North Carolina the "Good Roads State."

Captivated by the Parkway idea in late 1933, he designed and plotted (personally, on foot) the route that the road now takes through North Carolina. In 1934, he lobbied for this route in the face of opposition from Tennesseans and federal officials who favored another line. And for more than 25 years he personally assured that North Carolina bought sufficient lands to protect Parkway views.

Virginia citizens, too, helped create the Parkway. In the Bedford area, a group of private businessmen, led by local attorney (and later state legislator) Hunter Miller, helped the Park Service buy private lands for the Peaks of Otter recreation area north of Roanoke. Without the goodwill of Miller and his colleagues, that Virginia landmark might have fallen to destructive private development. Instead it was preserved for the public good.

Could Virginians and North Carolinians act today to save what always has been, in many respects, OUR Parkway? In the private sector, many already have. North Carolinians have purchased more than 13,000 special "Share the Journey" Parkway car tags that funnel extra funds, through the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, to Parkway enhancement. In Virginia, the Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway has long mobilized volunteers to plant trees that screen obtrusive near-road development.

But private funds and volunteer labor will never fill the breach. Now, one wonders, could a new state-federal partnership allocate state monies to aid our Parkway? It was done once before -- when the Parkway was first built. Let's do it again, before it's too late.

(Anne Mitchell Whisnant of the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University is the author of the forthcoming book "Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History.")

Copyright 2006 by The News & Observer Pub. Co.