Behind scenery, bad economy wears at Blue Ridge Parkway

Feb. 13, 2013 @ 08:49 PM

When you’re on the Blue Ridge Parkway, you’re looking at the trees, the tangles of wildflowers in the fields, the rippling mountain vistas, the hand-hammered fences, maybe the farms in the valleys, the hawks riding thermal updrafts at the overlooks. You're not thinking about the recession.

In towns across America, the effects of the still-sluggish economy are plain to see: empty factories, peeling paint, foreclosure signs.

But on the parkway, which stretches 469 miles from North Carolina to Virginia, that all feels far away. The scenery contributes to a sense that you’re in a place money can’t touch.

You’re not.

Seventy-seven years after Congress signed its existence into law, the parkway is feeling the effects of years of budget cuts, whether or not people riding the road notice it.

On today’s parkway, some overlooks are overgrown and unkempt. A smaller staff is less able to maintain the original vision of parkway founders, a recent management report states.

Since Superintendent Phil Francis -- who is retiring in April -- stepped into his position seven years ago, the parkway's budget has been cut by more than $1 million, down to a total of $15 million. Full-time positions have been cut by a third, from 241 in 2001 to about 160 today.

There’s still some progress. In January, parkway supervisors presented the parkway's first general management plan -- the first in the history of the park, which has operated under the guidance of its original master plan since 1936. The new, 700-page document sets guidelines for the next 20 years of parkway operations, from maintenance of natural systems to guest experiences. Francis said it's one of the new developments he feels most hopeful about.

But those in leadership remain worried about shrinking resources.

“With the decline in the number of people, we’re obviously not able to keep things the way we once did, and it’s disappointing,” Francis said. “Our equipment is old and we have an aging workforce. There have been a lot of transitions, and it’s just become more difficult to keep up with all the responsibilities we have."

The roadway also faces serious cuts if Congress doesn’t agree soon on a budget plan. Without an agreement, a variety of spending cuts will be automatically triggered March 1, including 5 percent of the National Parks Service’s budget.

Those losses are also a concern for the parkway’s partner groups, including the nonprofit, membership-based FRIENDS of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

“I think all the partner groups with the Blue Ridge Parkway are concerned about the decline in resources,” FRIENDS Executive Director Susan Mills said. “That’s been a big, big issue for all of us, well before the retirement of Phil Francis.”

But despite hits to the parkway’s services, both Francis and Mills remain hopeful the gaps will be filled.

Mills said it might be volunteer service that makes the difference -- including increasing involvement from the 2,000-plus individuals in the FRIENDS database.

“We have to make a decision if we are going to invest in the future of our parks, or the parks won’t be here for the next generation,” she said. “I mean, we can all remember those incredible experiences. We must ensure that the future generations have those opportunities. And maybe that opportunity doesn’t look exactly like it did in the past, maybe it’s not the picnics and the hikes. Maybe it’s volunteer service.”

Francis was careful to point out that volunteer service can’t fill all the parkway’s needs.

“I think they can help, but they’re not the total answer,” he said. “You know, some of our activities, it’s pretty easy to find volunteers. Other activities, it’s just not attractive. Cleaning restrooms is not as much fun as working an information desk.”

Donated funds aren’t the full answer, either. They can’t be used for permanent positions -- only for temporary hiring. And they’re much harder to nail down for the more prosaic operations of the parkway. A donor might put forward funds for a new guest-services center, for example, but they're less likely to bankroll the parkway's day-to-day maintenance needs.

“We can use funding for temporary positions and projects that we would call icing on the cake, but funding for core operations doesn’t work as well,” Francis said. “I think there’s an expectation by many that we should be paying for these core operations and people are less likely to donate funds for that.”

All the same, Francis sees the beginnings of a bright future for the roadway that has served as his workday home for the better part of a decade. He’s heartened by the completion of the general management plan. And he sees an opportunity to strengthen the parkway with better interpretive services -- the public information and education offered through visitor's centers and guest programs like guided hikes.

“I’m very optimistic that things will get better,” he said. “How long it takes is another question.”