Blue Ridge Parkway's beauty under siege from development

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Stowed in the Blue Ridge Parkway archives are more than 850 architectural drawings from the 1930s depicting every curving mile of the scenic road, down to where wildflowers would be planted, picnic tables placed and trees cut to open panoramic mountain vistas.

Viewed this way, as a 469-mile-long garden whose meandering path is a two-lane highway, the Blue Ridge Parkway is the largest landscape architecture project in the history of the United States.

Seventy-five years after construction started, the parkway's collective gardener, the National Park Service, struggles to keep the forest and the development beyond it from closing in.

Though the parkway passes through four national forests and other protected land as it stretches from the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina, two-thirds of the land adjacent to the road is privately held. On much of that, nothing prevents a landowner from building a house or a condominium complex or clear-cutting the trees in plain view of one of the nation's most-visited parks.

"You have no idea a piece of land is privately held until the owner goes and builds something there," says Rusty Painter, land protection director for the Conservation Trust of North Carolina, one of several land trusts that have worked for years to protect the parkway "viewshed" by purchasing adjacent land or negotiating conservation easements.

"You might have 10 acres of protected land, but it only takes one acre with one giant house on it to essentially destroy the integrity of that view," Painter said.

Over the years, the Conservation Trust has worked with other land trusts and government agencies to protect more than 30,000 acres along the parkway. This year, the organization is pushing a bill introduced in both houses of Congress that would appropriate $75 million over five years to buy land and easements for 50,000 additional high-priority acres along the parkway.

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