GIS Project Aimed at Keeping the Blue Ridge Parkway a Scenic Byway

As the Blue Ridge Parkway approaches its 75th anniversary, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) is drawing on the GIS (geographic information systems) expertise of students at Warren Wilson College to help it propose a plan to manage secondary road access to the Blue Ridge Parkway over the next 20 years. The proposal is aimed at keeping the Blue Ridge Parkway a rural, scenic byway and ensuring that it does not become a commuter road that diminishes the visitor experience.

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Ashville, NC (PRWEB) July 30, 2008

As the Blue Ridge Parkway approaches its 75th anniversary, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) is drawing on the GIS (geographic information systems) expertise of students at Warren Wilson College to help it propose a plan to manage secondary road access to the Blue Ridge Parkway over the next 20 years. The proposal is aimed at keeping the Blue Ridge Parkway a rural, scenic byway and ensuring that it does not become a commuter road that diminishes the visitor experience.

The Blue Ridge Parkway was the first national rural parkway to be conceived, designed and constructed for a leisure-oriented driving experience. It offers easy public access to spectacular views of central and southern Appalachian rural landscapes and forested mountains along its 469 miles length through North Carolina and Virginia. The Parkway is the most visited unit in the National Park System, and the 20 million recreational visitors it draws each year are major contributors to the economic vitality of the 29 counties through which it passes.

The National Park Service is working on a General Management Plan (GMP) that will guide policy decisions affecting all development and preservation along the Blue Ridge Parkway for the next 20 years. One of the most significant policy issues facing the Parkway is how best to manage the system of secondary roads cutting across it.

How Many Little Roads Should Become Bigger Roads?
Today the Parkway is intersected at-grade by 238 secondary roads, and 39 U.S. and state primary roads cross over or under the Parkway. The North Carolina Department of Transportation in particular has steadily increased its requests to widen and improve many of the gravel secondary roads as development has occurred near the Parkway, and Blue Ridge Parkway management imposed a moratorium on additional road improvement in the mid 1990s to protect the Parkway's natural and cultural resources. The moratorium will stay in place until the GMP and the Comprehensive Access Management Plan at its core are complete.

That's where the National Parks Conservation Association (http://www.npca.org) comes in. Since 1919, the nonprofit NPCA has been an independent, nonpartisan voice working to address major threats facing the National Park Service. As the Blue Ridge Parkway's General Management Plan takes shape, NPCA is developing a proposal concerning the future improvement of secondary roads.

"The decisions made regarding secondary roads will have a profound impact on the future quality of the Blue Ridge Parkway," said Greg Kidd, Senior Program Manager at NPCA's Blue Ridge Field Office in Asheville, NC. "Many of the current rights-of-way crossing the parkway in North Carolina are not wide enough to accommodate an improved road, and before the moratorium, in those instances, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NC-DOT) had to seek additional park land, triggering an environmental analysis each time.

"The Comprehensive Access Management Plan that NPCA will propose will provide a blueprint for secondary roads that can be considered for improvement," Kidd said. "With that information, NC-DOT will be able to make appropriate requests that can be handled efficiently by Blue Ridge Parkway management, saving both agencies large amounts of time, energy and money. At the same time, those interested in future development along the Parkway will have the information they need to make sound decisions.

"Above all, we want to make sure that access roads to the Blue Ridge Parkway are not made so extensive that the Parkway evolves from being a scenic byway to being more of a commuter highway. If that happens, we have harmed the goose that lays the golden egg, and the negative impact on tourism that is so important to our regional economy will be great."

To make its proposal easy to understand and interpret, and to facilitate decision-making, NPCA's proposal will incorporate GIS maps that visually present a wealth of information about each of the roads that cross the Parkway at grade, or go over or under it, and the development occurring near each. Greg Kidd turned to Warren Wilson College (http://www.warren-wilson.edu) faculty and students for assistance.

One of the Nation's Greenest Colleges
The small liberal arts college just outside Asheville in Swannanoa, NC, was known for environmental stewardship long before it was fashionable. Warren Wilson was selected recently by Blue Ridge Country magazine as one of 14 places and people that are shaping the southern Appalachian region and has won many national accolades for its green achievements and research. Learning how to use GIS to capture, analyze and visually present geographically referenced data so it reveals relationships, patterns and trends is part of the curriculum for students in the college's Global Studies program.

Warren Wilson students are able to extend their learning and serve the community through the college's highly regarded service learning program. When Greg Kidd heard David Abernathy, the chair of Warren Wilson's Global Studies program, make a presentation at the North Carolina Arboretum on another topic and saw how the audience immediately understood Abernathy's complex subject because of the GIS-generated maps he used, he knew he had found a partner who could help NPCA effectively present its Comprehensive Access Management Plan proposal.

When the GIS maps for the first four counties are finished early in the Fall, users will be able to click on each secondary road accessing the highway and see a photo of the convergence point and a profile including information such as whether the road is paved, the number of accidents that have occurred there, traffic data for that section of the Parkway, and whether the road is at grade with the Parkway, or goes over or under it. The maps will also reveal development hot spots near the Parkway, showing the splitting of parcels for development and building permits that have been granted. By integrating GIS data with tools such as Google Earth, users will be able to see the development that is apparent from any viewshed they may elect to examine.

"NPCA staffers and volunteers and Warren Wilson students are putting a lot of painstaking work into creating a map rich in information that users will immediately understand," said Warren Wilson College's David Abernathy. "Not only will users understand the information faster than if they had to wade through pages and pages of text, but they likely will have a visceral response to the amount of development they see happening near the Blue Ridge Parkway and will want to take steps to protect it."

"The collaboration with Warren Wilson students is exciting," said NPCA's Kidd. "We hope the project is just the beginning of an ongoing relationship, and now the National Park Service will be aware of their capabilities, too."

NPCA plans to submit its Comprehensive Access Management Plan proposal to the National Park Service late 2008 so it can be considered for inclusion in the Blue Ridge Parkway's draft General Management Plan. The National Park Service will provide the public with numerous opportunities to weigh in as the GMP takes shape. The Blue Ridge Parkway expects to finalize the GMP in 2010, just in time for the scenic byway's 75th anniversary celebration.

Collaboration Is the Norm in Asheville, Not the Exception
Collaborations such as the one between the National Parks Conservation Association and Warren Wilson College are common in Asheville, NC, a city in the Blue Ridge mountains that is small enough for potential partners to easily find each other and big enough to pose a wealth of opportunities (the population in the Asheville metropolitan area is approximately 220,000). The Asheville Hub (http://www.ashevillehub.com) catalyzes collaborations within and across the technology, creativity, rejuvenation, sustainability, land/agriculture, advanced manufacturing and enterprise clusters that are strong and growing in the Asheville area. Through collaborations, these clusters are creating jobs, recruiting companies, supporting entrepreneurs, generating revenue, and maintaining the excellent quality of life for which Asheville and Buncombe County are known.

For more information, contact:
Greg Kidd, National Parks Conservation Association
828/254-5161

David Abernathy, Warren Wilson College
828/713-5084

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