Blue Ridge Parkway in battle for beauty vs. people, nature

June 05, 1994|By Jay Clarke | Jay Clarke,Knight-Ridder News Service

America's most popular national park is in trouble.

Evergreen trees that crown the mountains through which the Blue Ridge Parkway passes are dying, leaving behind an eerie forest of whitened, leafless trunks.

At lower elevations, oaks, maples and other deciduous trees are under attack from a moth introduced from Europe.

A lethal sickness also has struck the dogwood that brightens the forests every spring with cheery bursts of bloom, and some scientists say that in 10 to 15 years, not a single dogwood will remain.

Adding to the park's misery, last winter's ice storms felled hundreds of trees. The park, which stretches southwest from Waynesboro, Va., through North Carolina and almost to Tennessee, had to close half its 470-mile length.

But the roadway should be cleared fully by summer, according to park Superintendent Gary Everhardt.

What cannot be remedied as easily is what Mr. Everhardt calls the slow creep of development, the advance of civilization onto lands close to the parkway, destroying the very views that inspired man to build this highway in the sky.

"That is the biggest threat to the park, greater than the acid rain, the woolly aphid, the gypsy moth, the dogwood anthracnose and the winter storms," says Vera Guise, executive director of the Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

"Everybody wants a room with a view," Ms. Guise says, "so they back [their homes] up to the parkway. What happens is that little by little, the scenic value declines. Nobody wants to look at barbecue grills and trash cans in somebody's back yard."

None of this means that the Blue Ridge has suddenly become a wasteland. Far from it. Despite its problems, it is still a splendid scenic highway, bordered for the most part by the southern forests and dotted with overlooks that offer breathtaking vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In the spring, magic touches the parkway. First come the wildflowers, coloring the roadsides. Then the redbud and dogwood peep out from the forest thickets, and in May and June the glorious rhododendrons burst into pink and purple blooms, producing a magnificent show.

Here and there, where the land flattens out, visitors may come upon a weathered old farm, defined by its split-rail fence, totally at home with its environment. Hiking trails lead to pretty waterfalls and secluded glades. Spur roads take visitors to craft centers, historic sites and mountain museums.

From high overlooks, the mountains themselves produce a spectacular backdrop -- a panorama of ridge after ridge, each a little deeper blue, ripples of land fading into the distance.

Last year, vistas like these prompted more than 22.9 million visits to the parkway -- the most recorded by any national park.

That popularity, however, may dim if developers have their way, particularly in the lands adjacent to the Virginia section. "The lay of the land there is rolling," explains Ms. Guise, "whereas in North Carolina the terrain is steeper, so developments aren't necessarily visible from the roadway."

Two recent Virginia cases have heightened concern for the park.

One was a proposal to build a power plant near the parkway at Buena Vista -- a threat that was averted when the plan was withdrawn after protests, according to Mr. Everhardt, the park superintendent.

The other case occurred in Roanoke, Ms. Guise says, when a developer persuaded the zoning board to reverse its own land-use plan and rezone a 300-acre parcel abutting the parkway. It went from agricultural use to allowing six buildings per acre.

After protests erupted from community leaders, the park service and environmentalists, a compromise was reached that still permits development of the parcel, but with less density and a clear area adjacent to the parkway.

"This [case] has galvanized a lot of people," Ms. Guise says. "We have formed a coalition with senators, congressmen, local planning councils, nonprofit organizations, universities -- about 75 people from every avenue of government and business, from every county in the parkway corridor . . . to meet threats to natural scenic areas."

But combating the parkway's ills isn't an easy matter.

"The parkway [administration] itself can't do much," Mr. Everhardt notes. "Most of the problems -- the affected trees, the housing developments -- lie beyond the park boundary."

As in most linear parks, the Blue Ridge Parkway owns only a narrow strip of land on each side of the roadway. Controlling adjacent development has to be a function of the communities bordering it.

As for the diseases attacking the trees, solutions so far have eluded those attacking the problem. "The dogwood problem has shocked us all," Mr. Everhardt says. "The dogwood anthracnose has been around for some years, but it's only come to the forefront in the past three to five years. A lot of forest service people are working on it."

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