Essential Friends: Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, Preserving the Parkway Down the Road

parkway morotist in the Great Craggy Mountains

Thanks to the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, the National Park Service is better able to preserve and manage the long and winding road through Eastern America's highest mountains—often called "America's most scenic drive." Photo by Randy Johnson.

Editor's note: Throughout the summer we're featuring national park friends groups from around the country to highlight the value they bring to the National Park System. The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation is constantly involved with its namesake park, whether landing funds to improve interpretive exhibits or helping to maintain trails. This is their story.

The Parkway’s well-watered ridgetop route offers an enticing metaphor to describe the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation. These advocates have showered a cascade of contributions on “America’s most scenic road.”

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Carolyn Ward and Jason Urroz at the White House. Courtesy photo.

Since its founding in 1997, the Parkway Foundation has bestowed nearly $3.5 million on Parkway projects. Their colorful “Share the Journey” logo license plate garners more than $500,000 a year. The distinctive plates also popularize the Parkway—already the most visited unit of the National Park System. These are North Carolina’s most popular specialty tags, and they are ubiquitous on roads from Parkway overlooks to the Outer Banks.

In March, CEO Carolyn Ward was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” for what is surely one of the Foundation’s most noteworthy achievements. The Kids in Parks program gets children and families unplugged and outside, learning about nature on interpretive TRACKTrails.

With a nearly $1 million grant from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation and over 40 partners across the country, this network of paths is rapidly expanding across the entire nation. The concept turns many kinds of existing trails into enticing, educational experiences. Armed with engaging brochures, kids and parents learn about nature and get fit, at times by emulating the “animal athletes” depicted on the pamphlets.

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The exploding TRACKTrails program addresses major childhood issues of our time, “nature deficit disorder” and obesity, and has garnered dozens of partner agencies, organizations, and funding sources. The mission is to create so many of the trails in local, county, state, and national parks and forests that any family can have access to trails at home (wherever they live) and nearby, permitting repeated use of different trails.

The group’s funding of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s “Parks as Classrooms” program further benefits more than 25,000 school children each year by bringing Parkway rangers—and a message of stewardship—to the classroom. Most recently, the Foundation largely funded a state-of-the-art Blue Ridge Parkway Communications Center in Asheville that enhances national park, law enforcement, and emergency services interactivity all along the geographically complex, nearly 500-mile road that’s long been hampered by dead communications zones.

The Foundation’s ultimate goal is to fund $2.5 million in projects and programs annually for the Parkway. In 2012, the $650,000 the Foundation has committed to the Parkway will make a difference across a range of projects, including replacing a visitor center roof at Waterrock Knob, enhancing visitor access, facilities, and trails at the popular Graveyards Fields overlook, and providing accessible trails at two of the Parkway’s great lakes, Abbott Lake at Peaks of Otter near Roanoke, Virginia, and Price Lake, near Blowing Rock, North Carolina. The funds also support programs at The Blue Ridge Music Center and will restore a historic trout pond at Moses Cone Park.

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A historical marker at the Virginia/North Carolina state line. Photo Randy Johnson.

In the past 15 years, more than 5,000 acres have been added by conservancy groups to the Parkway’s narrow corridor. The Foundation provides small grants to conservancy groups for acquiring critical easements to adjacent lands that Superintendent Phil Francis calls the Parkway’s “borrowed landscape.”

Those efforts impact more than scenery. Francis calls the 469-mile, north-to-south range of the road “a critical transect of land needed to protect biodiversity and deter habitat fragmentation along the Southern Appalachians.”

The Foundation’s diverse research projects include wildlife studies, habitat and exotic vegetation research, the collection and archiving of historical maps and oral histories—the kind of information you see on the interpretive panels, educational materials, and exhibits funded by the Foundation—and seen by many of the Parkway’s 16 million visitors.

Coming Sunday on the Traveler: Insider tips from the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation for exploring "America's Most Scenic Drive."

Coming next Wednesday: The Glacier Fund: Supporting The Crown of the Continent