Blue Ridge Parkway funding falters, but need remains

Feb. 27, 2014 @ 11:57 AM

The Blue Ridge Parkway, lovingly known as “America’s Favorite Drive,” has been riding a roller coaster of funding challenges over the past three years, taking the biggest hit in March 2013 from budget cuts forced by the sequester.

Since 2010, cuts have lopped $784,000 from the parkway’s budget, but that was regained last month when Congress restored the National Parks Service budget to 2011 levels. Activists say simply restoring 2011 funding is not enough.

Phil Francis, who stepped down as superintendent of the parkway in 2013, said that the restored level of funding leaves many long-time needs unaddressed, so infrastructure will continue to degrade and natural resources will continue to be underprotected.

“When people think of the parkway, they think it’s a two-lane road through the mountains,” Francis said. “But we’ve got 90-some-odd wastewater treatment plants, 77 cemeteries, 600 buildings, nine picnic areas and nine campgrounds, 14 visitor centers, administrative sites, the Moses Cone Estate — which is a huge responsibility — and our maintenance staff has half the number of people it had in 2001.”

From 2001 to 2011, the parkway went from 240 permanent positions to 170, cutting a third of the maintenance staff, according to a 2011 report by the National Parks Conservation Association.

In 2013, the lack of funding forced cancellations of ranger-led educational programs, picnic areas and campgrounds at Crabtree Falls, Doughton Park and E.B. Jeffress Park, according to a January report for Environment North Carolina, a statewide environmental advocacy organization.

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The parkway’s operating budget for fiscal 2013-14 is $15,385,000, up from last year’s $14,596,000, said Monica Mayr, deputy superintendent of the parkway.

But the return of funding to 2011 levels hasn’t reversed those decisions, though, she said. Whether to reopen closed areas and reinstate discontinued programs is something parkway leadership will decide on as it starts to formulate its 2014-15 budget plan, which should be done in the next couple of weeks.

“We could always use additional funding — we have lot of needs out there that require funding, but we are able to put together a national park experience with the funding levels we have,” Mayr said.

Having more seasonal staff would help visitors’ have a deeper, more intimate experience with the park through hikes, talks and programs, but staff also is needed for mowing, trimming and cleaning, she said.

The parkway’s vehicle fleet is outdated, and some of its equipment Mayr described as “ancient.”

In 2012, the parkway was the most visited unit of the entire National Park System, drawing 15.2 million visitors. Each October, the scenic drive’s busiest month, roughly 60,000 visitors travel the parkway, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.

If that level of visitation could be translated into pressure on Congress, the budget might increase, Francis said.

“I think these places are special, and so I just want to make sure people understand what is happening,” Francis said. “If it’s important, the public really needs to let their members of Congress know.

“What I hope what people would not do is sit on the sidelines and do nothing.”