Story by Sarah Vig
The Blue Ridge Parkway may be America’s longest national park, measuring out at an impressive 469 miles in length, but it is also its narrowest—the average width of the park’s right-of-way is only 400 feet on either side. In contrast, the viewshed extends more than one mile on either side, more than 13 times the actual protected area, meaning that changes occurring on the private property that abuts two-thirds of the Parkway’s length, means changes to “America’s Favorite Drive” as well.
“You might think [land viewed from the parkway] is protected, but often it is actually private and could change use at any time,” says Rusty Painter, Director of Land Protection for the Conservation Trust for North Carolina. CTNC coordinates land protection efforts of the Parkway’s scenic and natural corridor.
According to Gary Johnson, Chief Landscape Architect and Planner for the Parkway, it was not until the mid 1990s, as development pressures on adjacent lands increased, that the Parkway began working to preserve areas of high scenic value through state and federal conservation funding and cooperation with land trusts. In the last two decades, some 30,000 acres surrounding the parkway have been protected.
Certain areas in southwest Virginia (Roanoke, Franklin, Floyd, Patrick, Carroll and Grayson counties) and northwestern North Carolina (Alleghany, Wilkes, Ashe and Watauga counties) remain at high risk from development, a land use change that could be detrimental to park visitation, according to recent surveys conducted by the National Park Service. In these counties “development on adjacent lands is right in the visitor’s face,” Johnson says.
Sadly, land conservation along the parkway hit a major setback in February, when North Carolina Gov. Beverly Purdue, in an effort to ameliorate 2008’s $3.2 billion budget shortfall, took $100 million from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund’s 2008 budget—the entire budget for the year—and pulled $6 million from the Natural Heritage Fund and the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, two other major sources of financing for land trusts in the state.
Painter calls the move a “huge blow,” that is “devastating to conservation in the state.” Due to the abrupt loss of funding, conservation projects across North Carolina that were already approved are now in purgatory.
The state legislature restored $50 million in CWMTF funding for the 2009-2010 and 20l0-2011 fiscal years, but, according to Painter, most of the 2009 money will be used to fund last year’s projects.
“It’s going to take a long time to recover,” Painter says, “Conservation [in North Carolina] is set back at least three years, potentially more”
Land trusts are being forced to wait to close on deals due to lost funding have to maintain hope for patient landowners, who might back out if they need to sell sooner.
Unfortunately, the loss of funding means missed opportunities for many conservancies in the states. The change in federal administration has seen an increase in federal money for conservation projects, but most federal programs require non-federal matching funds, which would usually be provided by the state.
“There are some great properties that will likely be lost forever,” Painter says.
Johnson agrees. “The land protection strategy, the coalition of land trusts and willing sellers are in place,” Johnson says. “Our greatest limitation is having funding available when opportunities to protect land occur.”
To commemorate the Parkway’s 75th anniversary, a coalition of conservation groups from North Carolina and Virginia have asked for $75 million from Congress over five years for the purchase of targeted lands or conservation easements.
In the meantime, land trusts will have to rely more heavily on easement donations, where landowners voluntarily agree to limit development and protect ecological values, and hope that state and federal tax incentives remain appealing to landowners.