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Charting course for Blue Ridge Parkway's future



10/31/2011 - Charting course for Blue Ridge Parkway's future
by Karen Chavez - Asheville Citizen Times


  ASHEVILLE -- Attention, all of you 15 million annual visitors to the Blue Ridge Parkway: The fate of the country's most beloved scenic roadway is now in your hands.

 That's the gist of four upcoming public meetings in North Carolina and Virginia, during which top parkway managers will discuss the just-released draft environmental impact statement of the first General Management Plan in the Blue Ridge Parkway's 75-year history. 

 "This will become the guide for park managers for decades to come as they make decisions on how to protect the resources," parkway Superintendent Phil Francis said of the document released for public review earlier this month. 

 "We may change these alternatives based on public comment. People need to read the plan and c ome out and tell us what they think." 

 Better start reading.

The hefty document is 640 pages, not including index, and was 10 years in the making, at a cost of $1.8 million. But park managers and others familiar with the plan say it is arranged in a way that allows people to focus on parkway areas important to them, without having to read every page.

And they stress the importance of public input on a plan for the parkway's future.

The parkway, a 469-mile scenic, two-lane roadway stretching from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia down to the Cherokee entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is the most visited unit of the National Park Service. It has no entrance fees, yet packs a walloping $2.3 billion economic impact on the 29 local counties through which it passes.

"For the general public, the General Management Plan can be pretty daunting," said Don Barger, an architect, who is the Southeast regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association.

"What I recommend is going to the map (within the plan) of someplace on the parkway you care about, such as Mount Pisgah Campground, flipping through it, and that will give you a better understanding," he said.

"A general management plan is basically a road map. It says 'this is the route we're going on.' It outlines what we call 'desired future conditions.' What do you hope your great-great-granddaughter will see?"

The draft parkway plan outlines three alternatives to compare the advantages of each. Alternative "A" is the "no action" alternative, which describes the parkway's current management practices and provides a basis for comparing the two "action" alternatives, B and C.

Alternative "B," the National Park Service's preferred alternative, emphasizes the original parkway design and traditional driving experience, while calling for enhancements to outdoor recreational opportunities, natural resource protection and visitor services.

The plan can be viewed online and at the public meetings. Comments may be submitted online or by mail by Dec. 16. The first meeting will be 3-7 p.m. Wednesday at the Folk Art Center.

Long time coming

"It is really unusual for a national park to be able to go 75 years without having a general management plan," Barger said, adding that while this fact might raise a few eyebrows, in the case of such a complex park, it's understandable.

"I'm glad they took the time they did to do it right, because it's the first one," he said. "It's so many pages, not because they put a lot of gibberish in, but because the management of the Blue Ridge Parkway really is that complex. I have never seen a better general management plan."

When the Blue Ridge Parkway was established in 1935, parkway managers set sail under the guidance of a master plan, said Gary Johnson, the parkway's recently retired landscape architect.

"A master plan is a series of drawings that showed how a park would be developed, where facilities would go, what would be included," Johnson said. "It was mostly facility and visitor use-related."

This was how most national parks were governed since the formation of the National Park Service in 1916, Johnson said. In 1978, with the Redwoods Act, Congress mandated that every unit of the National Park Service would have a general management plan that would address the natural resources of a park in more detail.

Johnson first came to the parkway in 1976, and work on a general management plan for the Blue Ridge Parkway got under way in 1979, he said, but was never finished. Park managers approached each request for new building construction, renovations or natural resource management on a case-by-case basis.

Johnson left the parkway and worked in design and engineering at 56 national parks. He returned to the parkway in 1994, with his goals set on completing the parkway plan.

The parkway received funding for the plan in 2000, and its staff worked with the Denver Service Center and some outside consulting firms on the socio-economic and regional transportation studies, to create the blueprint . The plan was finished just before Johnson's retirement this summer. He will re-emerge to attend the public meetings and share his intimate knowledge of the plan.

Management by color coding

One of the first steps in drafting the plan, Johnson said, was to take inventory of everything within the 81,000 acres and 1,200 mi les of parkway boundary, including plant and animal life, cultural sites, historic buildings, tunnels, bridges and overlooks, trails, campgrounds, concessions and more. Also mapped in detail were what kinds of activities typically take place at different areas of the parkway.

The crux of the plan hinges on the creation of eight "management zones" that best characterize different park features.

"We identified eight different zones for the parkway and created maps that show where the zones are," Johnson said. "They set the level of what to emphasize and what kind of visitor use is appropriate for that zone."

In Alternatives B and C, the management zones are color-coded for easy identification. For example, an area designated as "Special Natural Resources Zone," is shaded dark green, such as Craggy Gardens, to signify that it is home to threatened or endangered plant species, and visitor opportunities would be limited to minimize impact to its ecosystem.

"Historic Parkway Zones" are colored blue, including parts of Mount Pisgah, where the important aspects are the historically significant design, including bridges, tunnels and buildings. A"Recreation Zone" is colored orange, such as parts of Crabtree Meadows and Linville Falls, where recreational, educational and interpretive opportunities are favored.

"Regardless of who comes in to do work in the park in the future, this will tell them what's in the park, what's important and what they should or shouldn't do," Johnson said. "We've never put that in writing before. This will help future managers with decision making."

Parkway Chief of Natural and Cultural Resources Bambi Teague suggests people check out Table 3 on Page 55 of the plan before getting overwhelmed. This color-coded table helps break down each of the eight management zones for easier digestion.

Teague, who can visualize and vocalize from memory almost every curve and bend of the 469 miles of Parkway, started working on the parkway nearly 30 years ago and has been involved in the General Management Plan since the beginning.

Big changes ahead

Some of the biggest challenges to the parkway, Teague said, are encroaching residential and commercial development within the parkway's viewshed -- the land that can be seen while driving the parkway -- as well as increased visitor use and the types of activities those visitors are choosing.

"I estimate the parkway has grown about 20 percent, just since I started here," Teague said. "The roadways are getting bigger, and that changes the character of the parkway."

For a park that was conceived and designed during the Great Depression on the rural backbone of the Southern Appalachians, it faces increasing pressures from multiple uses -- much larger RVs that can't safely make turns within historic campgrounds, pullouts and picnic areas; a greater population "loving to death" trails at places like Craggy Gardens and Graveyard Fields; and requests for a variety of new uses such as rock climbing, horseback riding and mountain biking.

"When an idea surfaces in the park, we'd go to the plan and see what level of intervention we'd have," Teague said.

As an example, she points to the requests for enlarging turnaround areas in the Mount Pisgah Campground and adding showers and electric hookups. "In Alternative B, most of Pisgah is designated 'Historic' (blue). We would allow some changes, but we'd need to mimic the look of the buildings that are already there," she said.

One area Asheville area visitors will have a keen strong interest in is plans for Craggy Gardens, a high-elevation natural area beginning at Milepost 364, about 20 miles northeast of town. Under the NPS preferred Alternative B, the area is zoned as "Special Natural Resources" (dark green), which gives Craggy Gardens the highest level of protection.

Alternative B calls for restoring the natural bald between the Visitor Center and the picnic area to its historic size of 25 acres, from its current 12 acres, Teague said. It also calls for opening the visitor center nine months of the year instead of the current six, and closing the popular trail to Craggy Pinnacle.

"There are federally endangered plants up there. If people stayed on the trail and didn't go over the wall, it would be OK, but people go over the wall every day," Teague said. "In this case, public input will matter. That's what we want to hear from people."

The plan's Alternative C also calls for restoring the grassy bald but for leaving the Pinnacle Trail open for people to enjoy the rhododendron tunnels on the way to the summit view, while increasing signs, staffing and education to keep people on the trail.

"Natural and cultural resources is our focus," Teague said. "The third element is visual and aesthetic value. We are a designed park. That's a great, different layer that adds complexity."

An example of a current parkway proposal that would get guidance from a parkway plan is the creation of a new City of Asheville Overlook on the parkway, Teague said.

A resolution to support the proposal was passed by the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, said chair David Gantt. The overlook, which would have parking and give visitors a view of the Asheville skyline, is proposed for Milepost 395.5, south of the N.C. 191 entrance.

Gantt said he hopes the overlook will mesh well with the new plan . "The timing is really good," he said. "There is a lot of unauthorized parking parking on the parkway parallel to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. The new overlook would showcase Asheville and provide new parking on the parkway."

After reviewing public comment on the plan, parkway staff will prepare the final General Management Plan by the summer, Francis said, with any revisions based on feedback. After the plan is signed by the NPS Regional Director, the plan will be implemented.

"From 1994 to 2011, there was a whole lot of conversation and discussion about what can we do to protect the resources and the visitors," Johnson said. "To sit here and hold this document, there's a huge feeling of accomplishment."

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