The parkway has never been easy, but it's worth it

By Anne Mitchell Whisnant, Correspondent

Published in The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)

October 15, 2006

Anne Mitchell Whisnant is director of research, communications and programs in the Office of Faculty Governance at UNC-Chapel Hill.


I've spent 15 years traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway writing "Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History" (University of North Carolina Press).

The parkway, Ive learned, has always been a controversial and politically challenging undertaking. Bringing a limited-access scenic highway with an exceptionally wide right-of-way through a populated region could hardly help but stir conflicts.

For nearly 75 years, parkway managers have contended with funding shortfalls, "viewshed" encroachment, pressure from nearby residents and tensions between powerful private interests and the public good.

Landowners in 1930s Ashe County felled trees across the road to protest poor treatment during land acquisition. The Eastern Cherokees for five years resisted granting a right-of-way across prime farming and development acreage and ultimately forced a re-routing of the road.

Little Switzerland developer Heriot Clarkson contested parkway land acquisition in the courts, wresting a settlement that narrowed the taking through his resort, opened numerous resort accesses directly to the road and assured a large payment. Grandfather Mountain owner Hugh Morton mobilized his media and inside connections to force the state of North Carolina and the Park Service to move the parkway down the mountainside away from his mountaintop toll road and swinging bridge.

It has never been easy to build or maintain the parkway. And though the road has been pushed forward under many changing historical circumstances, one episode from the 1960s and 1970s illustrates that however persistent and recognizable many parkway challenges, in different contexts, different results are likely.

Patched pavement, sagging fences:

For decades, advocates envisioned a longer parkway running from Maine to Georgia. In 1967, Congress approved extending the road to Marietta, but both landowners and regional environmentalists protested. In the wake of a 1973 environmental impact statement (required under the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act), the project died.

Clearly, neither extending nor even maintaining the Blue Ridge Parkway in its present state is a certainty.

The parkway was born in the Great Depression, when public faith in the governments ability to provide for our common good was rising; then, a scenic roadway through a gorgeous swath of the southern Appalachian Mountains seemed a worthwhile use of public monies. Today, widespread hostility toward the very notion of the public good is eroding much of our public infrastructure.

On the parkway, the consequences of such a shift in public mood and policy are evident. Overlooks are overgrown, "comfort stations" are uncomfortable, pavement is patched, some campgrounds are ragged and ill-equipped, rail fences sag, and historic sites languish. A 2003 study suggested that only a 40 percent parkway budget increase would forestall further deterioration.

The future lies with us:

The parkways history teaches us that this great public jewel was created by human hands within all-too-human frameworks of divergent perspectives and interests, uncertainty about the wisdom of contending approaches, and the difficulty of predicting outcomes.

Its present shape on the land resulted from thousands of hard decisions that balanced competing interests in a variety of ways. Its future lies in the decisions we make.

Can it be that we will allow it to crumble?

Like everyone who has influenced the parkway's development, we are presented with an array of difficult choices, and the results of our decisions will be written on the land.

The ongoing creation of the Blue Ridge Parkway now lies in our hands.

Copyright 2006 by The News & Observer Pub. Co.