Imagine not getting a haircut for 80 years.
That’s how the Blue Ridge Parkway is looking in some spots these days — a little hairy and ragged around the edges.
But in the first major project of its kind since the parkway was constructed in the 1930s, a team of parkway resource managers and skilled arborists are working around Haywood and Jackson counties to give some much-needed shearing to overgrown vistas.
The goal of the “Renew the Views” project is to balance the original, scenic design intent of the parkway and the National Park Service mission to protect its natural resources, said parkway landscape architect David Anderson.
It is the most visited national park in the country, drawing 16.1 million visitors in 2017.
On Thursday, hand-held radio traffic of “All clear!” preceded the whine of a chain saw, the hiss and creak of a 70-foot yellow birch taking a fall, and the shrieking crash as it hit the forest floor.
Anderson watched from the sunny top of a steep embankment at Milepost 434.2, where the parkway passes in front of the Richland Balsam Range, about halfway between Mount Pisgah and Waterrock Knob. Over and over, the trees went tumbling down, and more mountains came into view.
There are 910 designed roadside vistas along the 469 miles of parkway from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia down to the entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Cherokee.
Maintaining the roadside vistas experienced at 45 mph as drivers round bends, to the paved overlooks with parking areas for stopping a while to stare, is never-ending work, Anderson said.
He said it’s thought the forests – heavily logged at the turn of the 20th century – were just starting their regrowth when parkway construction got underway in 1935. The short saplings or nonexistent trees allowed for full viewing pleasure, which was the original purpose of the parkway – to attract tourists to the endless expanses of rippling mountain scenery.
But nearly a century later, the trees have grown up into an even-aged stand, obscuring once-open views. Regular overlook vegetation maintenance is done every three years, but only enough to basically keep the bangs out of the onlooker’s eyes.
“We do 310 vistas every year to clear the smaller stuff. We leave the rhododendron and flowering shrubs, the dogwoods and blueberry bushes,” Anderson said. “We start about 70 feet down. We’ve only been cutting that same footprint for the last 70 years, but the background is growing to maturity and blocking the view that was the original design intent.”
Funding from the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation of $20,000 is allowing the National Park Service to get at those mature trees at vistas between Mileposts 420-435 over 10 days.
The work involves 17 sawyers with AIR — Arborist Incident Response Team, Southeast Region — a team of highly skilled National Park Service arborists who respond to tree emergencies across the country, such as the aftermath of hurricanes that have brought down trees across power lines, roads or buildings.
Visitors will be able to see for many more miles at certain overlooks, but on close inspection, they will also see what appear to be tree graveyards in the foreground.
“People should know we’re not killing trees,” said Chris Ulrey, parkway botanist and AIR Team member. “They will re-sprout where they are.”
He said before any tree cutting takes place, monitoring is done to determine if the trees are vital habitat to wildlife, such as the Northern flying squirrel, which is a federally endangered species.
The squirrel makes its home at elevations above 5,000 feet in conifers like red spruce and Fraser firs on north-facing slopes.
Ulrey said there were no Northern flying squirrels found in annual monitoring in the trees being removed, which are mostly yellow birch and red oak.
“We leave the trees where they fall," he said. "They create habitat and nutrient regeneration into the soil. We get lichens, fungus and mushrooms that accompany decaying wood, and that’s good for bugs, birds and ground squirrels.”
Specialized, intensive work like this would not be possible without partnerships, Anderson said. The Blue Ridge Parkway has one of the highest maintenance backlogs in the National Park Service, at $517 million worth of road, building and maintenance work waiting to be done.
Funding for the vista restoration is coming exclusively from partner groups, including the Haywood and Watauga county tourism development authorities and the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation.
The nonprofit parkway foundation fills in large holes for the national park by raising money for many parkway programs and projects, such as the expansion at the Graveyard Fields parking lot and restroom construction, renovation of the Craggy Flats Trail, and ongoing rehabilitation of the Moses H. Cone Manor House.
Its “Renew the Views” program got a jump-start last year when a Virginia artist, Eric Fitzpatrick, donated hundreds of lithograph pieces of his “Blue Ridge Parkway” fall scene, said Mandy Gee, communications associate with the foundation.
“He wanted us to use those to donate to the project. Those who gave a gift of $100 or more got a piece of artwork. It helped us encourage donors to give. Our supporters loved it. People care so much about the views on the parkway,” Gee said.
She said the nonprofit raised $90,000 so far, which will be used for another vista clearing project in the fall.
Vistas have already been cleared on the Virginia side of the parkway, with funding from that state’s Friends of the Parkway nonprofit.
The North Carolina work started at the Double Top Mountain Overlook at Milepost 435, which is about 15 miles southeast of Waynesville and about 55 miles southwest of Asheville.
AIR Team members took out hundreds of trees over about a third of an acre in a day, Anderson said.
“The before and after was pretty incredible,” Gee said. “When we left, we could actually see Double Top Mountain. People weren’t stopping at the overlook as they drove by and by the time we left they were stopping to look. It transformed. If these views aren’t there, people aren’t going to go to the parkway. It’s one of the only places to get those unobstructed views without seeing high rises.”
A National Park Service study released last year found that visitors to the Blue Ridge Parkway in 2016 spent $9.8 million in communities near the park, and by supporting thousands of local jobs, it had a cumulative economic impact of $1.3 billion.
“We get a fair number of complaints that the overlooks are overgrown, and now where we’ve done the work, we get lots of compliments,” Ulrey said.