By Maureen Halsema
A distinctive blue mist settles over the Great Smoky Mountains, winding roads criss-cross the rolling hills of southern Appalachia offering unmatched views from the Blue Ridge Parkway, and visions of autumn colors from Shenandoah’s Skyline Drive take visitors’ breath away.
Each of these Appalachian parks will be celebrating its 75th anniversary this year or next, and the new attention on the region’s environmental assets reminds us that there are liabilities as well.
“Systemwide, we’re facing an annual $600 million shortfall,” said Joy Oakes of the National Parks Conservation Association. While there have been increases in parks budgets under the Obama administration, she said, “you can’t effectively close up more than a decade’s worth of maintenance backlogs and operations gaps with just one shot of money.”
It would have been worse, but next year’s budget has a six percent operations raise and a one-time stimulus package for infrastructure and roads that comes to nearly a billion dollars.
The declining infrastructure in the parks could be one factor in the declining per capita visits, as the parks reach their carrying capacity. Or there could be a broad generational shift away from outdoor recreation, as Richard Louv and others have asserted.
In an effort to counter this loss of visitation and generate interest in the parks, the Blue Ridge Parkway has launched an initiative to reconnect children and nature called, Kids in Parks.
“Over the summer we provided over 350 local kids with guided programs,” said Carolyn Ward, project director for the Kids in Parks program. “This was done in partnership with the Asheville YMCA and Asheville City Parks. We have also launched the website at Kidsinparks.com where we track the kids progress, collect data to help assess the effectiveness of the program, and disseminate the prizes to the kids for participating in the program.”
The first program under this initiative launched on Aug. 29 in Asheville. It is called TRACK: Trails, Ridges & Active, Caring Kids and it focuses on making parks and physical activity valuable and fun for today’s youth. One aim of this project is to combat the significant rise in childhood obesity, which according to the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation has more than tripled in North Carolina over the last two decades.
Preserving the biodiversity of the parks is a prime objective for its caretakers. The Great Smoky Mountains is home to over 10,000 different species of flora and fauna. It is a daunting task to ensure species and ecosystem conservation, particularly when many parks are understaffed and under funded. For example, the Blue Ridge Parkway has established over 250 inventory and monitoring plots to ensure that researchers can effectively monitor and ensure the growth of the park’s species. Currently, however, the park can only afford to staff six of the over 20 biologists required to effectively carry out this task.
There are several initiatives that the parks are doing in conjunction with their anniversaries. For instance, Great Smoky Mountains National Park—in collaboration with the Friends of the Smokies—is creating a $4 million gift called “Trails Forever.” The money will fund trail conservation and improvement throughout the park. As part of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s 75th anniversary celebration, the Appalachian Regional Commission created the Gems of Appalachia Initiative, a $150,000 grant dedicated to enhancing communities in North Carolina and Virginia that border the Blue Ridge Parkways in order to support sustainable tourism and help to preserve the park.