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Feds Eye Camping Changes for Blue Ridge Parkway

November 10, 2011 by   - () Leave a Comment

A scene along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Ending overnight stays at the Roanoke Mountain campground, improving recreational vehicle access to the Peaks of Otter campgrounds and extending the visitor season at Mabry Mill are among scores of changes in a proposed new management plan for the Blue Ridge Parkway.

In an era when the tiniest public or private development may be subject to extensive planning processes and lengthy environmental impact statements, it may be a little hard to believe that the 76-year-old parkway has never had a general management plan or full-scale environmental impact study, The Roanoke Times reported.

But for the first time in the parkway’s history, administrators have come up with drafts of each that are now available online at www.parkplanning.nps.gov/blri and open to public comment.

The last of four public meetings on the proposals will be held from 3 to 7 p.m. today (Nov. 10) at Roanoke County’s Brambleton Center.

Similar sessions were held last week in North Carolina and a third was scheduled in Lovingston on Wednesday. Parkway Superintendent Philip Francis said the first two sessions drew modest crowds: 30 to 40 in Asheville and 15 to 20 in Blowing Rock.

At the meeting, participants can view exhibits designed to explain parts of the plan, ask questions, and offer comments and suggestions.

A 20-Year Vision

The National Park Service describes the proposal as a 20-year vision “for perpetuating natural systems, preserving cultural resources and providing opportunities for quality visitor experiences.”

The draft plan offers three alternatives: a “no-change” option and two “action plans” that suggest various improvements to the parkway’s aging infrastructure, revised uses of some facilities and partnerships with the private sector.

The park service is endorsing what it calls “Plan B,” which it describes as emphasizing “the original parkway design and traditional driving experience, while enhancing outdoor recreational opportunities and regional natural resource connectivity, and providing modest improvements to visitor services.”

Those include the changes proposed for the Roanoke Mountain campground and Peaks of Otter.

Plan C is largely similar but goes further in some areas. It would open some park areas, such as Mabry Mill, year-round and would leave the Roanoke Mountain campground open. It also would consider more mass transit connections as well as shuttle systems to some parkway visitor facilities.

Both of the action plans would require significant increases in manpower and financing for the already cash-strapped parkway, the most visited unit of the National Park Service.

Price Tag for Improvements

The park service’s recommended plan, for instance, would raise annual operating costs from $17 million to $21 million and require 232 employees, up from the current 175. And that’s not to mention tens of millions of dollars more for infrastructure costs.

The proposal does not address how that would be accomplished, but Francis this week insisted that the proposals are modest for a park of this size and are absolutely essential, and that over the parkway’s history it has survived at least 17 recessions from which the country has always rebounded.

“You have to compare the amount of spending (being proposed) against the value of the asset we’re maintaining. The latest figure I’ve seen is that the replacement value of the parkway is $5 billion,” he said.

“We can’t stand by and not reinvest money into this economic engine,” he said.

“Camping is down. People expect to be able to take a shower and connect (to electricity) when they take vacations. We’ve listened to the public. I think the increases are not unrealistic.”

Pros and Cons

Pete Eshelman, director of outdoor branding for the Roanoke Regional Partnership, is part of the movement to better market outdoor recreational activities and opportunities in the Roanoke Valley and beyond.

While he sees the accommodation of RVs and a longer season at Peaks of Otter as strong enhancements to the region, he said he believes it would be a long-term mistake to convert the Roanoke Mountain campground to day use only.

Although the plan restates long-standing arguments that the campground is the least-used along the almost 500-mile drive, Eshelman said he continues to see great potential for an overnight campground near the largest urban area on the parkway.

In particular, he anticipates that the thriving cycling movement will continue to grow, and he believes that the campground is particularly important to cyclists traveling the parkway’s whole length.

He said it also could be a strong draw for hometown recreational users if it could be joined to the Chestnut Ridge Trail, now being studied for use by bicyclists in addition to the currently allowed hikers and equestrians.

“It comes back to marketing,” he said. “It would be a travesty not to have great access to a more urban-focused campground.”

About the Blue Ridge Parkway:

It runs for 469 miles, mostly along the famous Blue Ridge, a major mountain chain that is part of the Appalachian Mountains. Its southern terminus is on the boundary between Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Carolina, from which it travels north to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and offers access to the Skyline Drive, the major north/south artery through the Park. The two All-American Byways are separate and distinct. The Blue Ridge Parkway was built to connect Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Work on the road began in 1935. The last portion was completed in 1987.

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