Each year the Blue Ridge Parkway draws millions of tourists to the Roanoke Valley. The Parkway is administered by the National Park Service (NPS), a federal agency with dwindling funding to maintain such a vast resource.
In the late 1980s, the NPS began to look for ways to meet their financial challenges by connecting with nearby communities and visitors who loved the Parkway. This led to the formation of the non-profit Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway to recruit volunteers and community groups in maintaining the Parkway’s historic, cultural, and economic assets. They now count over 10,000 members.
The adopted mission of Friends is “to help preserve, promote and enhance the outstanding natural beauty, ecological vitality, and cultural distinctiveness of the Blue Ridge Parkway and its surrounding scenic landscape, thereby preserving this national treasure.”
According to the NPS, “Without the Friends’ work, trash would lie about in intersections and overlooks, trails would be overtaken by brush and fallen trees, signs would become obscured with graffiti or be simply unreadable with age.”
The Roanoke Valley Chapter of the Friends organization was formed in 2006 and has assumed responsibility for the Parkway from Milepost 100 to Milepost 150, including Vinton, Roanoke, Bent Mountain, and Salem.
The local chapter cares for trails, overlooks, campgrounds and picnic areas. Working in partnership with National Park Service staff, members adopt, maintain, and restore trails and scenic overlooks on the BRP. They prepare Roanoke Mountain campsites and picnic areas for opening each spring. They plant seedlings. They host nature programs.
The NPS says that “the Parkway was designed to maximize scenic views and give visitors the impression that they are in a park with boundaries to the horizon. The Parkway has some 500,000 acres of view-area scenery along its 469 miles stretching from the Shenandoah Valley to the Great Smoky Mountains.” However, in recent years the Parkway views from overlooks have been obscured by overgrown vegetation.
NPS and the Friends organization are addressing the overlook issue and working to restore the scenic vistas. They launched their first project in 2014, bringing in a national arborist team and park employees to clear more than 1,000 trees in 10 days. This work has continued with thousands of trees cleared, selectively and methodically, “minimizing impacts to natural resources,” by work crews funded by Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The Roanoke Valley Chapter of Friends is most active along the Parkway from March to October. There are about 20 active members with 200 on the call list. There are standing Tuesday crews and Saturday crews.
Volunteers say it is amazing the debris they find discarded along the Parkway overlooks, including not just litter, but tires, TVs, and appliances.
In 2016, volunteers with Friends began an inventory of all the signs on the Parkway, large and small, using an iPad to record the GPS for each and every sign and its condition. David Youngblood, who volunteers with the Roanoke Valley Chapter, was part of that inventory process from Route 460 to Adney Gap, which took about four days to complete in just this area. He says it is now possible for an administrator in Asheville to monitor each sign and its condition, whether it is wood or metal, in good shape or disrepair, or if it contains bullet holes.
Roanoke Valley Friends volunteers, including Youngblood, Barb Duerk, and Greg Stick, have been working this summer on sign maintenance, including repainting the welcome signs on Route 24 in Vinton and others at Route 460, Route 220, and Route 221. They will be completely replacing the signs leading to the Mill Mountain Star off Fishburn Parkway.
Youngblood has become “chainsaw certified” to assist with the Overlook Clearing program as well.
The Roanoke Valley Chapter of Friends raises significant funds for the various BRP projects through events such the Blue Ridge Marathon. They partner with the DMV to sell Blue Ridge Parkway license tags. They send out hundreds of letters soliciting funds each year and also accept donations online.
Steve Buxton, who is employed by the National Park Service as a district ranger out of the Vinton office, covering 111 miles from the milepost at Route 460 to the North Carolina State Line, says that without the Friends organization “many things could not be accomplished,” both in terms of labor and funding.
“We couldn’t survive without the labor they provide and greatly appreciate their efforts,” said Buxton.
He says the local chapter raised about $36,000 for the Overlook Clearing Project in recent years, and financed the Blueway clearing at the Roanoke River Bridge. The trail at the Roanoke River Bridge Overlook has been designated as a “put in and take out” access area for boaters.
As for preserving the cultural distinctiveness of the BRP, Friends underwrite the series of music concerts at the Roanoke Mountain Picnic Area just off the Parkway on the Mill Mountain Spur each summer, and the music programs at Rocky Knob, Humpback Rocks, and Mabry Mill. They also have a physical presence, assisting with traffic and parking. This is the 30th anniversary for the music series.
Upcoming one-hour concerts in Roanoke (which begin at 7 p.m.) include performances by:
- July 2 – Jezreel
- July 9 – Roanoke Valley Ramblers
- July 16 – Judy Henry & Jack
- July 23 – American Roots
- July 30 – The Mountain Boomers
- August 6 – Maness Sisters
- August 13 – Indian Run String Band
- August 20 – Marvin Harlow and Friends
- August 27 – Dew South
- September 3: The Original Orchard Grass
- September 10: Olen Gardner & Friends
- September 17: Maness Sisters
- September 24: Indian Run String Band
- October 1: The Mountain Boomers
- October 8: Root 2 Music
- October 15: New River Bound
- October 22: The McKenzies
There will also be a Kinney Rorrer Appreciation Night for the renowned banjoist on July 16 from 6 to 8 p.m. prior to the Music on the Mountain group.
Barb Duerk contributed to funding for the music program substantially when she was recently named as the Cox Conserves Hero (after online voting), receiving $5,000 locally and another $5,000 as the state winner to be donated to her “non-profit of choice.” The check will be presented at the July 9 concert. Cox Communications recognizes volunteers who are “creating, preserving, or enhancing shared outdoor spaces with financial awards.