Parkway to celebrate 75th at Waterrock Knob

A celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Blue Ridge Parkway will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 7, at the Waterrock Knob Visitor Center between Balsam and Maggie Valley.

The festivities, called “Blue Ridge Parkway: 75 Years of Heritage and Communities” will have a variety of free, ongoing craft demonstrations throughout the day as entertainment.

The entertainment lineup includes Cherokee Dancers at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., Old Time Appalachian Music by the Bean Town Boys at 11 a.m., Ammon sisters storytelling at noon and the Francis Family Bluegrass band at 2 p.m.

Demonstrations will include potters, blacksmith, woodcarvers, quilting and yarn spinning. David Brewin will have Nannie the Plott Hound on display and will talk about the famed state dog bred for hunting bears.

Food will be available for purchase from Soul Infusion Tea House & Bistro.

The great routing debate: North Carolina’s battle for the Parkway

To mountain communities, the coming of the Blue Ridge Parkway 75 years ago was seen as economic salvation.

It would provided much-needed construction jobs to a region ravaged by the Depression and ultimately bring a parade of tourists seeking natural scenery.

The Parkway symbolized America’s newfound love affair with the automobile, increasingly accessible to the

middle-class yet still a novelty.

“The Parkway was conceived very much in the vein that the car would be a pleasure vehicle,” said Ted Coyle, an anthropologist at Western Carolina University. “When the Parkway was built, no one had the idea that you would take your car to go shopping. Cars were to go out and take scenic drives with.”

Today, the Parkway seems intrinsic to the mountains and carries a sense of entitlement to the millions of locals and tourists who enjoy it annually.

“It makes us feel like the Parkway was inevitable somehow, that someone thought it up wholesale, saw the

mountains and put it right out there on the land,” said Anne Whisnant, a leading Parkway historian and author at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But the Parkway could easily have been something quite different. It was beset by social and political battles, which shaped and reshaped its route through the landscape from its conception in the early 1930s until

its eventual completion in 1987.

No sooner had President Roosevelt endorsed the Blue Ridge Parkway under the New Deal in 1933 than a raging debate broke out between North Carolina and Tennessee about which state would win the Parkway.

It had but one parameter at first: connect Shenandoah National Park with the Great Smoky Mountains. Designers soon crafted a route that would send the Parkway veering out of North Carolina and into Tennessee around Grandfather Mountain, bypassing the established tourist magnate of Asheville entirely and bringing traffic to the Smokies via Tennessee’s doorstep.

Asheville business leaders and politicians were distraught. The Depression had brought the city to its knees, and Asheville leaders saw the Parkway as a life or death proposition.

“If the Parkway were diverted from Asheville, it seemed the situation would be entirely and permanently hopeless,” Whisnant said. “The state of North Carolina got busy writing Tennessee out of the picture.”

Asheville politicians and business leaders mounted a masterful campaign to reroute the road past their city, enlisting far reaching support from the local tourist industry to the state house and governor’s mansion.

North Carolina “flung down the gauntlet” in its bid to cut Tennessee out and the “battle for the Parkway was on,” Fred Weede, director of the Asheville Chamber of Commerce at the time, wrote in his personal account of the year-long fight. Giving the Parkway to Tennessee would be an “appalling disaster,” Weede wrote in his retrospective.

The North Carolina contingency argued that God anointed them with better scenery and higher mountains. To put the Parkway anywhere else would be an affront to the Creator. But they realized that alone would not be enough to prevail.

“God had given us better scenery but man’s strategy and energy had to win the Parkway,” Weede wrote. “There were numerous tight spots encountered in shaping up a unified front. Iron hands were sometimes necessary.”

Masterful campaign

North Carolina’s campaign would not be an easy one. President Roosevelt had already endorsed the three-state route for the Parkway in a proclamation from the summer of 1933. Tennessee was well-established as the primary gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with park headquarters located there.

The Bureau of Public Roads, which would oversee eventual construction, also preferred the Tennessee route. The mountains around Asheville were the steepest and highest in the Appalachian chain, and building a road across them was seen as too expensive and challenging.

Even the landscape architects tasked with the Parkway’s design favored the lower-lying Tennessee route to provide a diversity of scenery, rather than subjecting travelers to mile upon mile of scenic but repetitive high-elevation peaks.

In an early strategy meeting held at the Asheville Chamber of Commerce, Weede impressed on the gathering the enormity of their attempt to turn the tide.

“I asserted we should face the fact we were licked before we began. But as dedicated citizens we should roll up our sleeves and fight,” Weede recounted.

Under mounting pressure from the North Carolina delegation to at least consider its pleas, Department of Interior Secretary Harold Ickes appointed a special committee tasked with selecting a route. The two states squared off in a public showdown before that committee in February 1934. In the hearing, the dueling states had three hours to present their cases.

North Carolina arrived with a well-orchestrated pitch, including large maps and photos of the “best” route for the Parkway. While several speakers made remarks, the bulk of the presentation was deferred to Getty Browning, a top road engineer with the N.C. Highway Commission, who had emerged as an effective point man for the North Carolina route.

Realizing the hue and cry from Asheville business leaders would do little to bend the committee’s ear, Browning instead focused on what he considered more objective reasoning: the superior scenery of the high mountains around Asheville.

As a locating engineer, Browning often set out cross-country on foot, climbing rugged mountains in search of the most ideal highway routes and had personally blazed every mile of the Parkway corridor North Carolina was proposing.

“He was the man on the ground in the literal sense,” said Houck Medford, director of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation. “He walked the Blue Ridge Parkway boundary an untold number of times. He was certainly a man’s man, but he had these other attributes and qualities that made him successful.”

He was a well-heeled socialite — charismatic, persuasive and politically savvy — yet with the mind of an engineer and persona of an outdoorsman.

Throughout the hard-fought crusade fraught with political wars and the feuding business interests, Browning kept his sights fixed on true purpose behind the Parkway.

“For Browning, it was ultimately about letting other people see the beauty of the mountains the way he saw it. There is something noble in that,” Whisnant said. “It would be useable by everyone. It would be available for free. It wouldn’t be overly controlled by commercial or monetary influences. It had something to do with our spirit.”

Following the hearing, the committee decided to take a tour of the North Carolina route. A caravan of 15 cars left Washington in March. The traveling party included many of the key players within with the National Park Service, Department of Interior and Bureau of Public Roads who would later shepherd the Parkway’s design and construction.

Since no good roads existed along much of the proposed route for the Parkway, the party planned to take side roads up and down the mountains to get a feel for the general terrain where the Parkway might pass. But the traveling party encountered a major snowstorm after crossing into North Carolina. Some gave up on the expedition in Blowing Rock. Those who ventured on to Asheville through the snow, ice and fog quite nearly didn’t make it. They later resorted to viewing the routes from the air.

Refining a strategy

As the summer of 1934 dragged on, the North Carolina contingency grew anxious. The committee tasked with recommending a route was mum.

The strategists didn’t let the downtime go to waste, however. They constantly refined their arguments and enlisted new messengers to lobby on their behalf in Washington. They met often to plan and carry out a campaign Weede later described as a “mosaic.”

“Road blocks, and they were plentiful, were approached from all angles and various solutions were weighed,” Weede wrote. “Between us — even if otherwise disposed — all cards had to put on the table face up.”

They heralded the already developed tourist industry in Asheville, ready and able to provide Parkway travelers with the type of amenities they would expect, compared to the more industrial nature of Knoxville.

They also pointed out the dearth of New Deal spending in their state. Tennessee was meanwhile the recipient of huge federal investments from the massive network of hydroelectric dams being construction by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Newspapers played an integral role as well. The publisher of the Asheville Citizen, Charles Webb, brought the full force of his newsprint to bear for the campaign and convinced newspapers elsewhere in the state to follow his lead.

The strategists left no stone unturned, even throwing an extravagant dinner in honor of the wife of the Secretary of Interior at the Grove Park Inn when she visited Asheville.

But the centerpiece of the campaign came in the form of a red, Moroccan-leather bound photo album with a gold engraving of Roosevelt on the cover to be hand delivered to the President by an Asheville contingency. The photos showcased the scenery of the mountains around Asheville — scenery that would be left out by a Tennessee route.

The photos were culled from the collection of George Masa, a famous Japanese photographer who documented landscape scenes in Western North Carolina, while others were shot by a paid photographer escorted by Browning for the sole purpose of the project.

While much of the campaign was mounted on a shoestring due to the Depression, the nearly bankrupt Asheville Chamber of Commerce funded the production of the album, which included an inside pocket with a hand-drawn relief map of their favored route and artfully-lettered titles over each photo.

Final showdown

With still no word from the committee, Secretary of Interior Ickes announced that he would personally preside over a final hearing before selecting the route in September 1934.

A testament to the sophisticated campaign by the North Carolina delegation, a strategy was mounted to pack the hearing with their own supporters. A special train was chartered to carry their entourage to Washington. It was 18 Pullman cars long when it left Asheville with more tacked on as it traveled across the state, including a car for the governor.

A memo was read out to every car on the train instructing them to show up early for the hearing the next day. When the appointed hour arrived, nearly every chair in the room was filled by the North Carolina delegation, relegating Tennessee to standing room and the hallway outside.

Throughout the summer, Browning had bolstered his engineering case in preparation for such a final hearing, including large mounted photos offering a visual tour of the preferred route. The presentation wholly dwarfed that put on by Tennessee.

But unbeknownst to North Carolina, their opponent had an ace up its sleeve. Earlier that morning, the committee tasked with recommending a route had finally issued its decision: It unanimously favored the Tennessee route. The report was leaked to Tennessee and, although Ickes had likewise received a copy that morning, Tennessee’s delegation proudly flaunted it during the hearing.

“The announcement was a bombshell for us,” Weede wrote. “We looked at each other with considerable consternation. It was no light matter.”

To side with North Carolina, Ickes would have to rebuff his own committee.

But North Carolina had an ace of its own — one known to only a handful of key players within the campaign. It wasn’t revealed for nearly two decades and still remains a largely unknown turning point in the great routing debate.

“This ace was a very hush-hush move. No more than half a dozen individuals were in on the secret,” Weede wrote.

North Carolina’s clandestine trump card was a man named Josephus Daniels, a newspaper tycoon in the state with a summer home at Lake Junaluska near Waynesville, N.C., a town west of Asheville.

Daniels, a supporter of the North Carolina route, had personal connections that reached straight to the top. He served as the Secretary of the Navy during WWI, and his assistant secretary and right-hand man was none other than Roosevelt. Daniels was friends with Ickes to boot.

Daniels was reluctant to exploit his personal friendship with Roosevelt and Ickes, however, and throughout the agonizing spring and summer of 1934, Daniels refused to pull that lever.

“How to get him to move was our big problem,” Weede recounted.

One summer evening, Weede and Charles Webb, the publisher of the Asheville Citizen, and two other compatriots set out from Asheville to Lake Junaluska to confront what Weede called “the Daniels’ problem” head on. They arrived on the porch of Daniels’ summer home to find him already chatting with none other than Getty Browning. Daniels had clear moral objections to what the men were asking.

“Indeed our own consciences had to be stifled in urging a man to lay aside his lofty and sincere ideals of propriety and the niceties of friendship and perform an act to aid his state in its rugged battle for a great project,” Weede wrote. “It was no easy task to out argue him. But we were four against one. And we were sincere and desperate.”

They spent three hours lobbying Daniels on his porch that night, according to Weede’s account. But they left with the wording of a telegram Daniels scribbled on the back of an envelope asking Ickes for a meeting that Weede would wire the next morning.

Daniels met with both Ickes and Roosevelt that week and continued his conversations with Ickes leading up to the final showdown in September.

Two more months of waiting passed before Ickes made the announcement in November 1934 that the full route would go to North Carolina. Tennessee was livid and chastised Ickes for overruling his own advisory committee, and even appealed to Roosevelt to overturn the decision but to no avail.

The Last Front

With a route in hand, construction was imminent. But Browning’s general strokes on a map were a long way from being fixed on the landscape. The tug-of-war for the Parkway would now play out between villages and neighbors.

“You are going through a populated landscape with farms and communities. They all had different ideas about where the Parkway should go and what it should be,” Whisnant said.

While the federal government was putting up money for construction, buying rights of way fell to the states. The fabled road suddenly wasn’t so appealing to farmers along the proposed route who faced the reality of losing their land. Early descriptions of the Parkway called for a right of way of only 200 feet. But designers and engineers realized it must be five times that at least.

“If you are going to have a scenic parkway you have to preserve the scenery. They had to do that with a wide right of way,” Whisnant said. “That was a shock to landowners. It was much wider than a regular road.”

The rhetoric used when selling the Parkway wasn’t playing out like locals were led to believe. The great economic benefit seemed to evaporate with they found they couldn’t build roads and driveways from neighboring land onto the Parkway.

“Road building before that was always about giving people a way in and out,” Whisnant said.

Instead, the Parkway would have only a few appointed entrances. The Parkway was prone to trespassing and vandalism by disgruntled landowners along its length.

“A few said ‘I’m going to bulldoze a road from my property to the Parkway and there’s nothing you can do to stop me,’” Whisnant said. Others cut trees on Parkway right of way to purposely despoil roadside views.

Meanwhile, business interests were dismayed to learn they couldn’t put up billboards or signs along the route.

“It was supposed to benefit tourism but how is it going to benefit tourism if we can’t put up signs to direct people to our businesses?” Whisnant said of the sentiment. “This was sold to us as a tourism prospect but it is not.”

To make matters worse, the Parkway built its own diners and gas stations, a form of direct competition that gave tourists no compelling reason to exit the motorway.

There were also inevitable conflicts with landowners about the price being offered for rights of way. Some of the more admirable opponents were Hugh Morton of Grandfather Mountain and Harriet Clarkeson of Little Switzerland, two already developed tourism enterprises along the Parkway’s route north of Asheville. They not only understood the legal process but had political clout to take their case to the media.

Others simply lamented the passing of an era symbolized by the coming of the Parkway. Bill Watson, born in 1923, remembers when the Parkway came through the small community of Benge Gap near Boone, claiming part of his father’s farm and general store in 1938. His dad built a new one, but it wasn’t the same.

The Parkway brought rapid change to the barter-based economy that once played out inside the general store. Customers would haul in chestnuts, herbs, eggs, chickens, lumber, furs and even livestock to trade for goods from Watson’s father. Suddenly, Watson’s father found himself selling root beer to tourists.

“He much didn’t like it. He was used to being in a quiet place,” Watson said in an oral history preserved in the Parkway’s archives.

Watson moved away as a young man, but came back in the early ‘60s with a proposition for his father. He wanted to build a motel and restaurant in hopes of catering to Parkway tourists. His father was reluctant, but Watson eventually won out.

“He said that ‘Bill had lost his mind to spend his money on a motel and restaurant,’” Watson recounted. “Then so many people started coming in.”

And so it goes today. With nearly 17 million visitors every year, the Blue Ridge Parkway was indeed a prize worth fighting for.

“Certainly our forefathers, when they had the vision for the Parkway, were right on target,” said Lynn Minges, director of the N.C. Division of Tourism. “It has done exactly what they intended it to do.”

Blooms in the southern mountains

Each July since 1991, I’ve led field trips along the Blue Ridge Parkway offered as part of the Native Plants Conference sponsored by Western Carolina University. This year’s outings (July 25) will have taken place by the time you read this.

Between Waterrock Knob and Mt. Pisgah, the eight participants in my group will identify perhaps eight fern species, several grasses, a few lichens, maybe a mushroom or two, and more than 100 wildflower species, including wild quinine, large-flowered leafcup, bush honeysuckle, green wood orchis, starry campion, Indian paintbrush, enchanter’s nightshade, Small’s beardtongue, downy skullcap, tall delphenium, pale Indian plantain, tall bellflower, southern harebell, horsebalm, round-leaved sundew, Blue Ridge St. Johnswort and false asphodel.

No group of flowering plants along the Parkway, however, will be of more interest to participants than the “Monardas,” a genus in the mint family that includes the ever-popular bee balm. There are two other distinct “Monarda” species — wild bergamot and basil balm — that appear in this section of the Southern Blue Ridge Province in addition to a hybrid backcross called purple bergamont.

“Monardas” are sometimes called horsemints because “horse” signifies “large” or “coarse,” and the members of this genus are generally larger, coarser plants than many other members of the mint family.  In this instance “coarse is beautiful.” Most of the horsemints have quite appropriately been introduced into cultivation.

Here’s a checklist of those three horsemint species and the hybrid found in the Western North Carolina mountains. All flower from mid-June into September and can be readily located along the parkway, especially in the areas of the Grassy Ridge Mine (milepost 436.8) and Standing Rock Overlook (milepost 441.4).

Bee balm, also called crimson bee balm or Oswego tea (Monarda didyma): occasional in moist, shaded situations; adapted by scarlet color long tubular shape of flowers for pollination by hummingbirds, but often “robbed” by bees and other insects that bore “bungholes” at the base of the corolla tube; note the reddish leaf-like bracts just below the flowers; called “bee balm” because it made a poultice that soothed stings; sometimes called Oswego tea because of its use as a steeped medicinal by the Oswego Indians of New York; generic name honors an European botanist, Nicholas Monarda, who had an interest in medically useful plants from the New World. No red flower — save, of course, cardinal flower — is more resplendent. And like cardinal flower, this member of the mint family often haunts a lush and dark setting so that when it catches slanting light the flaming crimson gleams like a beacon.

Wild bergamot (M. fistulosa): common but variable species flowering in open fields, meadows, and on dry wooded slopes; petals are usually lilac or pinkish-purple (rarely white) with the upper lip bearded at the apex; bracts often pink-tinged; frequently visited by butterflies; oil with an odor resembling essence of bergamot was once extracted from the plant to treat respiratory ailments; brewed as tea by the Cherokee for many ailments, including flatulence and hysterics.

• Basil balm (M. clinopodia): occasional in both moist and dry woods and thickets; similar to wild bergamot but with paler pink or white flowers that have purple spots on lower lip and whitish bracts; common name indicates that it was used like bee balm as a poultice. Wild bergamot and basil balm often interbreed along the parkway.

Purple bergamot (M. media): an infrequently encountered natural hybrid backcross of the above species displaying deep reddish-purple flowers and dark purple bracts; habitat about the same as bee balm, so look for color differences between scarlet of that species and deep purple for the hybrid; despite the hybrid status it’s reliably distinctive and exciting to encounter.

Note: Excellent colored illustrations of each of these horsemints appear opposite p. 92 of Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1977).  Dotted horsemint (M. punctata), which has purple-spotted yellow flowers, is primarily a species of the piedmont and coastal plain that does not — to my knowledge — appear in the Southern Blue Ridge Province.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

America’s Great Outdoors Initiative

Not even the looming shadow of the nation’s worst environmental disaster in two decades could spoil the mood at the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative listening session in Asheville last week.

Recreation, conservation and preservation-minded environmentalists from all over Western North Carolina streamed into the Ferguson Auditorium at Asheville-Buncombe Technical College for a chance to influence federal policy.

“They’re calling it a listening session,” said Abe Nail, 56, of Globe. “I can’t imagine the Bush administration doing anything like that.”

Judi Parker, 63, also of Globe –– which is tucked into the middle of the Pisgah National Forest just south of Blowing Rock –– marveled at the crowd of people swarming around her.

“I’m just glad so many people came,” she said.

Nail and Parker were two of more than 500 people who came to participate in a project inaugurated by President Barack Obama in April. Administration officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Department of Interior –– all of which have a stake in overseeing America’s public lands –– have joined together for a road show to listen to the people their policies impact.

Paul Carlson, executive director of the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee based in Franklin, said the administration’s willingness to send senior officials to the listening sessions showed it was serious about supporting locally-based conservation efforts.

“Those are pretty senior guys and for them to be out there taking that kind of time to listen to us is pretty impressive,” Carlson said.

The group has toured a dozen cities already to meet with stakeholder groups and talk about how the federal government can do a better job expanding access to outdoor recreation and land conservation in everything from city parks to national forests.

Will Shafroth, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Interior, is one of a handful of officials who have been to every city so far. Shafroth said the trip has given him a lift during a trying period.

“It’s invigorating because with the dark cloud of the oil spill in the Gulf, which has been a real drag on our sense of what’s happening, you come into a place like this and it’s just full of energy,” Shafroth said.

The strain of the past months showed on Shafroth’s face, and during his opening remarks he managed to forget where he was, thanking the people of “Asheville, Tennessee” for the turnout.

Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy handled the slip graciously and led the audience –– which was made up of a wide range of characters from AmeriCorps volunteers to non-profit executive directors to local politicians –– in a rousing call and response that confirmed the real venue for the event.

The value of the listening session as a policy tool may not yet be determined, but its worth as a morale building exercise was evident from the start.

Tom Strickland, Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, invoked the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt in his remarks and set the tone for the dialogue later in the day.

“We know now that the solutions are not going to come from Washington, if they ever did,” Strickland said.

The room buzzed as Julie Judkins of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a facilitator in the morning’s youth event, offered some feedback direct from the young people to the big bosses.

“Even though we love Smoky [the Bear], maybe it’s time to get him on the iPhone,” Judkins said.

John Jarvis, head of the National Park Service, offered a succinct summation of the aim of the event in his address.

“We need your ideas so we can spread them around to other parts of the country,” Jarvis said.

The listening sessions have been organized to inform a report that will be on President Barack Obama’s desk by November 15. After the hour-long introductory session that included an eight-minute inspirational video invoking the nation’s relationship with its public lands, the participants headed to breakout sessions in classroom settings to discuss their own experiences.

The sessions were organized to record what strategies were working, what challenges organizations were facing, how the federal government could better facilitate change, and what existing tools could be used to create improvements in the system.

In a breakout session focused on outdoor recreation, participants affiliated with trail clubs, mountain biking groups, paddling groups, tourism offices and scout troops piled into a room.

Mark Singleton, executive director of Sylva-based American Whitewater, participated in the president’s kickoff conference in Washington, D.C., back in April. Two months later he was telling the facilitator that the government had to work to create better and more accessible options for recreation on public land so the younger generation would grow up with a conservation ethic.

“It’s hard to protect something if you don’t love it,” Singleton said. “There can’t be a disconnect with the younger generation.”

Eric Woolridge, the Wautauga County Tourism and Development Authority’s outdoor recreation planner, hailed the new cooperative model in Boone that uses a local tax on overnight lodging to fund outdoor recreation infrastructure projects.

Woolridge oversees an outdoor recreation infrastructure budget of $250,000 derived from proceeds of a 6 percent occupancy tax.

“The key is that we have a revenue stream, and it always stays there,” Woolridge said.

There were specific asks for cooperation from the Feds, too. A woman from North Georgia wanted to know how to get memorandums of understanding with various agencies to help her youth orienteering program.

Don Walton, a board member with the Friends of the Mountain To Sea Trail, asked that the U.S. Park Service to consider allowing more camping opportunities on land owned by the Blue Ridge Parkway.

While each set of stakeholders had their own pet issues, nearly everyone was urging the Feds to ramp up their contribution to the Land And Water Conservation Fund, which uses revenues from off-shore oil leases to benefit outdoor recreation projects across the country.

Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar authorized $38 million for state projects through the fund this year, but the administration has announced its aim to authorize the full funding level of $900 million for the LWCF by 2014.

Woolridge, Singleton and many other outdoor recreation stakeholders also waned to emphasize that their work isn’t just about playing, it’s about economic development.

“Outdoor recreation and conservation is a legitimate development strategy,” Woolridge said. “In fact, it may be the only development strategy for rural communities.”

For Shafroth, who ran a non-profit in Colorado before taking his job at the Department of Interior, the economic challenges of the moment are an ever-present reality.

“With the shortfalls with resources we have right now and the size of people’s goals… in some cases, there’s a pretty big gulf right now,” Shafroth said.

But more than just dollars and cents, the listening tour is an organizing effort, a way to get conservation-minded people in front of their government to start a long-overdue conversation.

Abe Nail said his attendance at the event wasn’t about money.

“You can’t buy conservation. Conservation is passion driven,” Nail said.

To submit comments online to the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, visit http://ideas.usda.gov/ago/ideas.nsf or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Blue Ridge Breakaway to bring cyclists to Haywood County

The mountains of Western North Carolina are rapidly becoming the top destination for serious cyclists east of the Mississippi.

The latest long-distance race to join the local cycling scene is the Blue Ridge Breakaway on Aug. 21, the first of its kind to be held in Haywood County. Organizers hope to attract top caliber riders from across the South to enjoy the topography of the highest county this side of Colorado.

“The cycling community in Western North Carolina is huge. It’s a hobby, a sport, and a lifestyle here in the mountains, and we wanted to bring the cycling community together to lead us through it,” said Katy McLean, of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce.

Chamber Director CeCe Hipps hatched the plot for a ride that would showcase the county’s terrain, but she relied on the cycling community to pull the event together.

While the ride will feature a 32-mile stretch on the Blue Ridge Parkway and a breathtaking descent from Soco Gap into Maggie Valley, perhaps its greatest feature is its accessibility for riders of all skill levels with 25-, 40-, 60-, and 100-mile options.

“One of the things that’s unique about this ride is there are four different routes, and it really has something different for every type of rider,” said Ken Howle, chair of the organizing committee.

Larry East, an avid cyclist and a regular in weekly group rides around Waynesville every Wednesday, took on the challenge of designing the course. It runs through wide mountain valleys, up narrow coves, and along the Blue Ridge Parkway, where it reaches its highest elevation at 6,100 feet.

It was East’s job to make sure the rides were safe, full of right-hand turns, and scenic.  East tipped the 40-mile loop as the prettiest ride.

The century loop features an astonishing 8,000 vertical feet of climbing over 105.72 miles that traces a ring around the county and finishes with the drop into Maggie Valley from Soco Gap.

“Make sure your brakes are working,” East said.

Howle has high hopes for the ride’s future, which he believes will solidify the county’s place as a cycling destination among the already burgeoning WNC scene.

“Our long-term vision is to grow it into a destination ride that will attract between 600 and 1,000 riders,” Howle said. “It’s a great time of year for folks from the low country to come riding in the mountains.”

This year, organizers expect between 200 and 400 cyclists. The event has permission from the National Park Service for up to 500 cyclists on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The riders already registered for the event come from as far away as Michigan and Ohio, but many are from Atlanta, Spartanburg, and Charleston. Howle thinks destination cycling is becoming an important part of the tourist economy in the mountains.

“We’re going to be bringing a kind of tourist that Haywood County doesn’t normally attract,” Howle said. “And I think it will establish this area as a destination not just for paddling and rafting but for cycling.”

MedWest hospital system has underwritten the event, which has also had major support from bike outfitters like Liberty Bicycles in Asheville and the Nantahala Outdoor Center bike shop in the Gorge.

Kent Cranford, owner of Motion Makers in Sylva and Asheville, is excited about a new ride, especially since Jackson County’s Tour de Tuck won’t run this year.

“It is always good exposure for the region's great riding when a good cycling event traverses some of our landscape,” Cranford said. “The Breakaway has been very organized from the beginning, and I'm sure that they are going to pull off a great event, especially with so many options to ride. Obviously, the long options that get on the Blue Ride Parkway are going to be the most breathtaking.”

For Howle, the strong local support in the event’s first year has been a vote of confidence.

“The thing that’s really surprised me is the overwhelming support we’ve had from the community and the sponsors,” Howle said. “It just proves that people see this as the type of event we should be doing in Haywood County.”

Meanwhile, the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce has accomplished the task of opening up new terrain in destination marketing while taking care of its hometown community.

“We just have such a great cycling community and there are so many riders around that we needed an event like this in Haywood County,” McLean said.

For more info, visit www.blueridgebreakaway.com.


Weekly road bike rides

 

• Waynesville: Thursday at 5:30 p.m. Meet at Rolls Rite Bicycles on the Old Asheville Highway. Beginnger to intermediate rides led by Bicycle Haywood advocacy group. 8- to 12-mile rides. 828.276.6080 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

• Bryson City: Wednesday around 6 p.m. Depart from the East Swain Elementary school in Whittier on U.S.19 of exit 69 from U.S. 23-74. All levels. 800.232.7238, ext. 158.

• Bryson City/Sylva: Women’s ride on Mondays at 5:45 p.m. Departing from Whittier Post Office. Three groups do 8-mile, 13-mile and 17-mile rides. No one will be dropped. spinderellas.ning.com.

• Bryson City: Sunday at 4:30 p.m. Meet at Bryson City Bicycles on Everett Street for casual, moderate ride. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 828.488.1988. “Bike and Brew” ride ends with a local microbrew at Nanthala Brewing Company.

• Sylva: Tuesday at 6 p.m. Depart from Motion Makers bike shop for a tough 25-mile ride up to the Balsam Post office via back roads and back into Sylva. 828.586.6925.

• Franklin: Sunday at 1 p.m. departing from the Franklin Health & Fitness Center on Main Street in Franklin. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 828.369.5608 and ask for Tom.

• Franklin: Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. departing from Smoky Mountain Bicycles at 179 Highlands Road. Geared for all levels. 828.369.2881.

 

Men who built Blue Ridge Parkway recount hard work, dangerous conditions

Lorin Shaw was barely 16 when he landed a job with a crew building the Blue Ridge Parkway in the late-1930s.

“We were lucky to get the work because there was no work back then,” said Shaw, who was born in 1923 in Burnsville.

When Shaw was hauling a load of hot tar one day, the lid came loose on the vat. As he put on the breaks coming down hill into the work site, hot tar oozed over the rim and spilled into the cab of the truck and down his back.

“When I stepped off the truck they cut my shirt and stuff off of me — just as soon as I stepped off. If it had stayed on there, it would have left scars,” Shaw said. “Any time you are messin’ with trucks and equipment in the mountains, you’ve got to watch it. You could get hurt.”

Shaw made $12 a week and did whatever he was told.

“Up on the, Parkway you didn’t say you couldn’t do it cause about 10 more of ‘em were waiting to take your job,” Shaw said. “There wasn’t no jobs.”

The Parkway’s construction employed hundreds of local men during the Depression when work was scarce everywhere — but especially in the mountains. Most involved in the early construction have now passed away, but stories like Shaw’s were captured in oral history interviews by the National Park Service.

Ben Caudill, born in Sparta in 1925, had to lie about his age to land a job on the Parkway. Caudill was part of a Civilian Conservation Corps landscaping crew that felled trees by hand with cross-cut saws and axes to make way for the road builders. After construction, the crew went back to replant the denuded roadsides.

In an oral history, Caudill recounted bluntly the fate of a family member employed in a far more dangerous line of work on the Parkway.

“My first cousin got blowed up at Ice Rock,” Caudill said.

The Parkway often came up against sheer, rock cliffs, like the infamous Ice Rock. Blasting was the only way to chisel out a toehold for the road.

“They’d tie you to a rope and tie the dynamite to you and let down the rope, drill your hole and fill it full and bring you back out and then shoot it,” Caudill said.

Dynamite crews made more than any other workers, 65 cents an hour from what Raleigh Hollefield remembers.

“Blastin’ and drillin’ is what I done,” said Hollefield, who was born in 1923 in Little Switzerland. “It was pretty dangerous and a rough job.”

Buren Ballard, born in 1909 in Weaverville, made 45 cents an hour drilling holes for the dynamite — less than the blasters but more than the average laborers.

“We’d go way up above on one of them big cliffs and tie a rope to a tree, and then put on a safety belt, and then go down on that cliff. And they’d swing the jackhammer down to us. I would stay on them cliffs for three and four hours,” Ballard said in an oral history interview on file in Parkway archives.

When building tunnels, Ballard would stand on scaffolding across its face, drilling away with his 60-pound jackhammer.

A man on his crew was killed when he drilled into a hole that was already filled with dynamite that not yet been set off. Another man was loading dynamite into a hole when lightning struck it and blasted apart the rock, breaking the man’s hip.

Ballard worked on the morning shift, which started at 5 a.m. It was too dark to see yet, so he laid a flashlight across the rock when starting a hole. He got up at 2 a.m. and walked out to the main road by his house, where another worker picked him up. If it was too muddy or icy, they both walked through the woods and over mountains for two hours to get to work.

His wife packed him a lunch of biscuits, eggs, ham and jelly — and a thermos of coffee. On the job site, he would cut a limb off a bush and hang his lunch box from the stub.

It was cold work given the Parkway’s high elevation. When Ballard was first hired, his job was to walk up and down an air compressor line that fed the jack hammers, lighting small fires along its one-mile run to keep it from freezing.

Until the Parkway came along, there were no prospects for work.

“Couldn’t find a job nowhere,” Ballard said. “If it hadn’t been for Roosevelt, I guess I’d have starved to death.”

The Parkway was launched under the New Deal, but only a fraction of the labor came from the Civilian Conservation Corps or Works Progress Administration. The bulk was contracted out to construction companies, which in turn hired local men.

Unlike other massive public works during the era, like the building of the Hoover Dam or Golden Gate Bridge, relatively few were injured or killed during Parkway construction, however.

“It was minimal considering the work,” said Harley Jolly, a Parkway historian and author in Mars Hill. “When you look at moving mountains the way they had to move mountains, that was a major challenge. When you blast way the whole side of a mountain it is dangerous.”

The Parkway was known then as “The Scenic,” and is still called that by old-timers who were part of the construction.

“They were proud to be able to have a job,” Jolly said. “The income gave them a better life than they would have had without the Parkway.”

But the work wasn’t for everyone. Homer Reeves, born in 1910 in Sparta, walked off the job after a close encounter with a poisonous snake, a four-foot-long copperhead on the rock where he was working.

“That was the end of my work with the Parkway. I said, ‘I wasn’t gonna mess with any more of that.’ Never did go up any more after that on the Parkway,” Reeves said in an oral history interview in the mid-1990s.

The work was hard, Reeves recounted. The snow was a foot deep his first day of work. When it rained, mud came up to their knees. It would take half a dozen men to free trucks when they got stuck.

“Tires didn’t last no time. You’d hit a rock and bust one. There was just something all the time as far as that goes,” Reeves said. “But it give people a lot of work that’s one thing. The Parkway helped a lot of people.” 

America’s Favorite Journey

The Blue Ridge Parkway unravels gracefully across the landscape, at times suspended from high cliffs and etched into rocky crags, then deftly shifting gears to skim over hayfields and past log cabins bound by split-rail fences.

The road seems unfazed by mountain topography. Arched bridges skirt rugged crevasses and stone-faced tunnels bore through the mountainside itself, always coursing onward and never compromising its smooth, undulating curves.

The Parkway moves so harmoniously through the scenery and lays so gently on the terrain, it seems possible that perhaps the Parkway was there first, or at the very least born at the same time as the mountains themselves.

“I can’t image a more creative job than locating that Blue Ridge Parkway, because you worked with a ten-league canvas and a brush of a comet’s tail,” said Stanley Abbott, the chief landscape architect of the Parkway during its construction in the 1930s.

The task facing the early Parkway designers was enormous, with little more than vague parameters of where to put the Parkway. Blazing a scenic road through high and rugged mountain passes in the 1930s was an engineering and artistic feat. It also pushed the boundaries of competing American ideals.

The country was in the midst of a burgeoning national park movement, and many in the general public had already accepted a popular concept of preserving America’s grand landscapes. Meanwhile, a love affair with the automobile had likewise gripped the country. These two notions gave rise to the newfangled Parkway concept.

Yet merging the two was not easy.

“A road and a park are very different things,” said Ian Firth, an historical expert on Parkway design and professor emeritus in the College of Environment and Design at the University of Georgia. “Roads are meant to bring progress and development. A park is 180 degrees different. It is where you preserve something from progress and from development.”

Abbott, just 26 years old when he was hired as chief landscape architect for the Parkway, possessed both the skill and instinct to capture the Appalachian countryside and its sweeping mountain vistas from behind the windshield of an automobile. He often likened his approach to that of a cinematographer, training his camera on one frame after the next and eventually producing a 469-mile masterpiece.

While the Parkway’s design is often compared to art, Abbott and his colleagues applied a mathematical formula to achieve the serpentine line.

Abbott was a master of the spiral curve, a highly engineered and deftly calculated arc that eases cars gently into a curve and exits them smoothly. The turning radius broadens as you move through the curve, much like a spiral expands as it moves outward from the center. The Parkway owes its sweeping nature to the equation, which avoids the unpleasant centripetal force of standard curves.

The formula was perfected by railroads in previous decades.

“They had all these cars they were pulling, and if you didn’t have a gentle change in curve, you had lurches, bumps and screeches that were very uncomfortable for passengers and bad for freight and prone to derailment and accidents,” said Mary Myers, a Parkway expert on landscape architecture and chair of the Landscape Architecture and Horticulture department at Temple University.

Abbott deployed another geometric tool called the reverse curve, essentially two back-to-back spiral curves in opposite directions. Drivers barely exit one turn before they slalom into the next one. The reverse curve creates a rhythmic experience, as if swaying back and forth through the mountains.

“I don’t think you can find a better example of that beautiful line of grace,” Myers said of the Parkway. “The reverse curves do everything.”

Not only do they achieve a rhythmic motion, but they aim the car’s windshield toward the views, whether it’s a mountain vista on the outside curve or a rhododendron-capped boulder after rounding the bend.

While the Parkway often plunges in elevation from mountain peaks to rolling valleys, the grade is gentle, another area of careful calculation. There’s also one road feature markedly absent from the Parkway: no painted white lines at the edge of the pavement.

“They tried to make a very gentle transition between the road and landscape,” Myers said.

Abbott’s crew faced a great conundrum. Roads, by nature, scar the landscape, sometimes obliterating the natural topography, especially when forging a new mountain passage. Yet the Parkway’s success depended on protecting the scenery it passed through.

“As landscape architects they were very concerned about that,” Myers said.

Luckily, Abbott had hundreds of CCC men at his disposal to install the massive landscaping on the denuded road edges left in the wake of road builders. If a road bank wasn’t sculpted to his liking, he asked the CCC men to cart off more dirt and re-contour it by hand.

A bitter tug-of-war played out in the political arena over the Parkway’s basic route — mainly pitting North Carolina against Tennessee. Once North Carolina came home victorious, road builders and designers were left with little instruction on exactly where to put the Parkway aside from a few general mountain ranges. They embarked on a year-long reconnaissance mission through the mountains, arguing over which mountain ranges to pass over within the otherwise broad parameters of connecting point A and point B.

“Nobody came to the Parkway with a blueprint,” Firth said. “The design evolved and you can see it evolving as you read the correspondence and debates.”

Abbott didn’t set out to chase one panoramic view after another, fearing the high-elevation vistas would grow monotonous.

“Too much of any one thing becomes very boring,” Myers said. Even breathtaking vistas from mile-high mountain tops.

Instead, he brings the road to the cusp of a sweeping view, lets it hang there for a moment and then retreats, perhaps diving into a rhododendron tunnel or ducking behind a grassy boulder-strewn knoll. The compression and re-emergence of vistas creates surprise and intrigue.

“The physiognomy of the eye dictates that your eye has to be constantly scanning to stay alert. The Parkway does that very well,” Myers said. “Within each quarter mile, you have a variety of scenery. There is a sense of anticipation of what is to come.”

But when passing through the Craggy mountains and Plott-Balsams in the final 100 miles of the Parkway, Abbott was forced to get creative to break up the tedium of vistas. The best asset became the rock cliffs themselves, with the road often passing so close that it seems you can reach out and touch them from the passenger seat.

And, of course, tunnels.

“The tunnel produced a wonderful drama when you emerge from it,” Firth said.

The majority of the Parkway’s 26 tunnels occur on the southernmost section, starting in the Craggy Mountain range and continuing through the Balsams, where sheer rock faces leave few other options for passage other than boring into the mountain itself.

Tunnels preserved the natural contour of the ridges, avoiding a massive excavation that would gouge up the mountainside and mar its silhouette from a distance.

“When you travel in the valley below and look up, you don’t see the Parkway,” said Carlton Abbott, the son of Stanley Abbott, who, like his father, became a landscape architect.

Geology occasionally posed an impasse, however.

“They started to excavate tunnels and the roof collapsed,” Firth said. Some tunnels were abandoned and the mountain subjected to significantly more excavation instead.

When it came time to tackle the finer points of Parkway design, Abbott and his team worked in 10-mile sections, walking each one and staking three potential routes before picking one. Then they drew plans for each quarter-mile section, detailing every inch of the landscape for the 469-mile road.

Up to 50 landscape architects, many of them students, worked under Abbott to hone the drawings. They diagramed split-rail fences and rock walls. They mapped out how many trees and shrubs to plant and of what species. They labored over the placement of boulders and how wide the grassy areas should be before giving way to the tree line.

Gary Johnson, the chief resource ranger at the Blue Ridge Parkway, often consults those maps — 850 sheets in all — as the guiding management vision.

“It is a landscape that is very labor intensive,” Johnson said. “You can’t just let it go back to nature.”

Ironically, images of Appalachia were one of the most highly orchestrated elements of the landscape. Abbott’s vision of varying landscapes relied on pastoral farm scenes — not merely in the distance, but enveloping the road with split rail fences, rows of corn and grazing cattle. The National Park Service certainly couldn’t be tasked with farming hundreds of acres along the roadside, but nor could the land be left in the hands of farmers for fear it would one day be sold. So the Parkway bought the land, then promptly leased it back to farmers for $1 a year to keep on farming it as they had been, giving rise to the practice of agricultural leases still used in 400 sites along the Parkway today.

To complete the idyllic scene, the Park Service rounded up log cabins and put them on display as if they’d always been there.

“It has been criticized for being such a selective view of Appalachia,” Firth said.

But the distortion was deliberate, intended as a powerful symbol of American ingenuity and self-reliance during the Depression when a reminder of human perseverance from days gone by was an important message.

The scenes of early Appalachia on the Parkway look like archetypes, according to Ted Coyle, an anthropologist at Western Carolina University.

“There was a time in American history when we made these kinds of scenes,” Coyle said. “At that time in history, we wanted to mythologize our past. I’m not saying that because it is false we should get it rid of it, but it is important to point out that it is not the actual history.”

It was a departure from most national parks, however, including the nearby Smokies that attempted to wipe out signs of human presence on the land in favor of nature. Once again, Parkway designers made a conscious decision to set up landmarks such as old mills for future generations to see.

“They were concerned if they didn’t, this fragile image would disappear from the landscape,” Carlton Abbott said.

That farm scene has changed. Tractors have replaced the draft horse and plow. The hand-baled haystacks that once stood as sentinels along the Parkway are gone, with tight, machine-rolled bales in their place.

The notion of Abbott penning the Parkway’s design in one fell swoop is far from the truth. Abbott plugged away dutifully from 1935 to 1944 until he was called into service for WWII. By then, only two-thirds of the road had been completed. Construction resumed immediately after the war and continued in sections until 1967.

“It is amazing it was completed because everything had changed so much after the war,” Firth said. “But the Parkway was always a blue-eyed boy and got certain preferential treatment.”

The final missing link around Grandfather Mountain wasn’t finished until 1987. Given the duration of road building that long outlasted Abbott’s tenure, it is amazing that the Parkway design retained its unity.

Abbott briefly took up the reins as the Parkway’s landscape architect following the war, but it was Ed Abbuehl, Abbott’s one-time college instructor and right-hand man in the Parkway’s early stages, who remained at the helm another 20 years.

“You find him saying ‘This is the way we have always done it, and this is the way we should do it.’ He was one of the forces saying ‘Let’s keep the original design going,’” Firth said.

The job of chief landscape architect continued to be passed among co-workers and handed down to apprentices for four decades—providing a continuous line from Abbott’s founding philosophy well into the 1970s.

“Apprenticing is the traditional way landscape architects learn,” Myers said. “It’s the design knowledge being transmitted from one generation to the next.”

Bureaucratic institutions like the National Park Service also served to protect the continuity of parkway design over the years.

“People work there for a long time — you don’t have radical changes,” Myers said.

Tim Pegram, a former park ranger who has hiked the Parkway, likens the scenic motorway to Michelangelo’s statue of David.

“The day it was finished is the finest it will ever be,” Pegram said.

The statue of David was subjected to the elements for three centuries. His base was struck by lightning, angry rioters broke off his left arm, and a mad artist took a sledgehammer to his left toe. Even conservators tasked with the statue’s care erred terribly by washing it in hydrochloric acid and gooping it up with protective wax.

“The same thing has happened to the Parkway,” Pegram said.

Views are being undermined by development, landscaping carefully selected by Abbott 75 years ago is showing its age and rockslides continually reduce sections of the road itself to rubble.

“It is being chipped away a little a time,” Pegram said. “Even the Parkway managers have messed it up in places.”

The Parkway is a labor-intensive landscape and lacks the workforce to keep pace.

“If you really look closely, you can tell we are not maintaining the Parkway as we once did,” said Parkway Superintendent Phil Francis. “Overlooks are growing up. The mowing along the road shoulders is not as wide or manicured as it once was. Many of our historic buildings are suffering from neglect.”

The Parkway blames federal funding shortfalls. In the past decade, the Parkway has watched its maintenance staff shrink by more than one-third.

So they make compromises—the most striking is not keeping trees cut at overlooks. Many are so grown up they are hardly overlooks at all. An old signboard telling visitors about a view beyond the tree branches is the only clue it was once a vista.

“The number one, primary reason that visitors come to the Blue Ridge Parkway is to be able to look out from this table where they can see the mountains and drink in the views,” said Gary Everhart, a former Parkway superintendent in the 1990s. “It comes down to a simple little thing called dollars. Unfortunately the Parkway has been struggling with enough money to do all the things that need to be done.”

Ornamental trees and shrubs planted by CCC workers 75 years ago are now dying, and the Parkway must embark on a round of new plantings. Some specimens even require pruning by hand.

“Things change gradually,” Francis said. “It is like watching your kid grow. If you are the parent, it happens incrementally.”

Another challenge is rockslides, which are endemic to mountain roads, particularly those with the Parkway’s elevation. A year rarely passes without a rockslide or two, some knocking out sections of the Parkway for months during major slope repairs, while others may take just a few days to haul off a pile of debris.

There have been close calls — a boulder landed in a woman’s backseat — but no deaths or injuries from the slides, Francis said.

The constant barrage of minor repairs to Parkway infrastructure requires extra thought. Maintenance crews keep a stockpile of weathered and gray fence posts for repairing split rail fences. When the roof of an historic cabin springs a leak, park rangers spend their days splitting logs to make wooden shingles that will match.

Gary Johnson, the chief of resource management on the Parkway, is often torn between stop-gap measures versus more costly but permanent repairs. When a stone wall starts to crumble, he can slap some mortar in the holes and stuff the falling rocks back in place. But in the long run, the wall needs to be rebuilt on a better foundation.

A batch of federal stimulus money is allowing the Parkway to rebuild 31,000 feet of rock wall this year, which posed its own dilemma: balancing the historic character of the stone walls with a modern safety design. At two-feet-high, the rock walls aren’t terribly effective as guard rails, but Johnson is debating how high to make them without compromising their charm. The other question is whether to use traditional, dry-stack techniques versus super-strength mortar.

Park managers have learned to balance aesthetics with safety. For example, the historic wooden guardrails along the Parkway are reinforced by steel banding on the back that are not visible from the road.

When Johnson came to the Parkway in 1994 as its chief landscape architect, he was humbled by the footsteps he followed in. Nothing is taken lightly, he said.

“I often have the thought when we are making a design decision and are doing something differently than in the past I think, ‘What would Stan do?’” Johnson said. “Afterward I think, ‘I hope Stan is not up there somewhere looking down and thinking ‘Boy they are really messing this thing up.’”

The Naturalist's Corner

Why we do it

“You’re getting up when?”

“You’re going out in this weather?”

People who have a passion for the outdoors and revel in the beauty and the subtle and not-so-subtle intricacies of nature are accustomed to these questions and their accompanying incredulous stares. The questions give me pause to wonder if the questioner has ever watched the sun, dripping red, crawl out of the blue ocean at dawn or ever seen the dappled light of the morning sun, like spotlights on the forest floor or ever sat with back against a solid oak and watched the last milky wisps of fog ascend from the mountain side after a sudden summer shower.

There are certainly grand and exotic places, beautiful and intriguing creatures and vistas to die for around the globe. But so often that “ah-ha” moment in nature comes simply, suddenly and without fanfare.

We were on the Blue Ridge Parkway last Saturday (May 1) for the Haywood County Arts Council’s annual “Birding for the Arts.” We had ambled away from our cars, peering into the gray but greening windy woods trying to put some corporeal shapes to the invisible warbles emanating from the forest. We turned to walk back to our cars and Joe Sam Queen called out, “I’ve got a scarlet tanager!”

We followed Joe Sam’s finger to a large maple at the edge of a clearing. At the end of a branch, surrounded by burgeoning maple leaves and waning flowers, framed by the overcast sky, was a most exquisite orange-variant scarlet tanager. Now scarlet tanagers are beautiful birds in their standard dress — deep scarlet front and back with jet-black wings and tail. But on this bird the scarlet was replaced with a soft, lush pumpkin-orange. And the soft light from the overcast sky let you drink in all the subtle shades and tones and admire its intricate hues.

The next day, Sunday, May 2, I was again on the Parkway in search of neotropical migrants. I was with Chuck Dayton, Sara Evans and some friends of theirs from Minnesota and Asheville. The blustery wind was making it difficult to get good looks at birds when and if we could find them. We were hearing chestnut-sided warblers regularly but having no luck at coaxing them up for a gander. Then at one overlook, a fresh male suddenly popped up from the underbrush and flew into a small, mostly bare tree, not 20 feet from the edge of the overlook.

He seemed oblivious to the nine pairs of binoculars focused on him as he serenaded. He turned, first right profile and then left profile – showing us the rich chestnut sides he is named for as well as a bold black eye stripe and black chin streak. His yellow pincushion cap gleamed in the sunlight. He faced us, threw back his head and sang with gusto — “pleased, pleased, pleased to meetcha!” Next he turned his back to us and threw up his head. From his nape, down the middle of his back, he fairly glistened a yellowish green, interspersed with deep black lines.

And that, my friends, is why we do it.

Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Federal bill aims to save Parkway views at risk from development

A bill before Congress could help save views along the Blue Ridge Parkway by setting aside $75 million over five years to buy adjacent land threatened by development.

Blue Ridge Parkway Protection Act was introduced in honor of the 75th anniversary of the Parkway this year, and out of growing recognition that the disappearing viewsheds along the Parkway are undermining what makes the scenic journey special.

“The Blue Ridge Parkway offers some of the most spectacular mountain views in the nation, and this legislation will preserve those views for our children and grandchildren,” U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, said.

Shuler cited the important role of the Parkway for locals, who use it to reach recreational outposts and favorite outdoor spots, as well as its source of tourism revenue.

“It is imperative that we protect it,” Shuler said.

The funding should be enough to protect 50,000 acres. Land would only be bought from willing sellers, allowing the Parkway to buy land when it goes up for sale rather than seeing it get snatched up by developers.

An economic study by professors at Warren Wilson and UNC-Asheville directly linked declining views with a drop in Parkway visitation, and in turn a loss of dollars for communities along the Parkway’s route. The Parkway is an economic driver for the region, generating about $2.3 billion in economic activity in both states annually.

“This legislation calls for a wise investment in the long-term health of the Parkway and the tourism economies of communities near this national treasure,” said Reid Wilson, executive director of the Conservation Trust for North Carolina, which works to protect land along the Parkway.

The act was supported in the Senate by Senators Richard Burr and Kay Hagan of North Carolina, as well as a Virginia delegation and other House representatives from both states as well.

Five miles of Parkway views preserved

A 1,488-acre tract along the Blue Ridge Parkway in McDowell County has been protected from development thanks to a conservation agreement with the landowner, a railroad corporation.

The long, linear tract is owned by CSX, a rail shipping corporation. A rail line on the tract will continue operating, but the property can never be developed or logged. CSX got $3.67 million for placing the property in a conservation agreement with the Conservation Trust of North Carolina. More than half was state money from various conservation trust funds, while the rest was raised privately. Land conservation philanthropists Fred and Alice Stanback and Bill and Nancy Stanback, all of Salisbury, were among the major contributors.

In addition to preserving Parkway views, it contains state Natural Heritage Areas and Catawba River headwater streams. The property also includes about 1.5 miles of the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, the route followed by mountain militiamen during the American Revolution on their way to the pivotal Battle of Kings Mountain in South Carolina.

Smokey Mountain News Logo
SUPPORT THE SMOKY MOUNTAIN NEWS AND
INDEPENDENT, AWARD-WINNING JOURNALISM
Go to top
Payment Information

/

At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.