The Blue Ridge Parkway brings thousands of visitors to the area each year to admire its beauty and recreational offerings. It also has been an outdoor playground for Appalachian students, faculty and the community of Boone for generations. However, high usage and careless behavior occurring in some areas leaves irreversible impact.
The student volunteer Blue Ridge Parkway Corps (BRPC) works with Blue Ridge Parkway staff to educate the public about trails, the environment, and the biology of sensitive areas in order to preserve and protect the area for all to enjoy.
The BRPC started in fall 2008 through the university's Outdoor Programs as a service-learning opportunity that assists in the management and protection of this local and national treasure. Twelve students serve as "volunteer educators" on one of the parkway's most sensitive hiking areas, Rough Ridge. BRPC coordinator, Alex Schwartz, said more people have shown interest and have applied to volunteer than they can accept into the program.
Each volunteer commits to two, four-hour shifts each month in the fall and spring. Duties include hiking along and monitoring the Rough Ridge trail. Corps members aid hikers who may want additional information about the trail and parkway, as well as educate hikers on how they should properly use and preserve natural resources.
The Blue Ridge Parkway Corps volunteers also ensure that dogs, which are prohibited from Rough Ridge, stay off the trail and that people stay on. Off-trail hiking and pets on the trails are two practices that harm sensitive plants on the ridge. Many visitors are unaware of the damage they cause when they choose to ignore posted policies.
"I volunteer with the Blue Ridge Parkway Corps because I want to give back to the outdoor community that I recreate in so much," said senior William Coleman, organizational communications major. "I feel like I'm a facilitator between Appalachian and the parkway community and I'm proud to be able to represent our university in that way."
The National Park Service, which manages the Blue Ridge Parkway, recognized that the Rough Ridge trail needed an additional human presence to educate and inform users about the sensitivity of the area. Research has shown that people respond better to a human presence than to signage. However, budget cuts to the Blue Ridge Parkway over the last decade mean the parkway does not have the resources to carry out face-to-face interaction.
"I have learned human presence—just being here and talking to people about why these plants are so fragile—does a way better job than just signage," said Bridgett Stout, senior parks and recreation major and biology minor. "If somebody's here and actually cares about these plants, it makes more of an impact on them than just reading a sign."
Rough Ridge has a sensitive environment due to its high elevation. It also has unique plants and wildlife that need protection from the trail's high traffic.
"Rough Ridge is an extremely popular area because it's a very easy, short trail to get to some really incredible views," Schwartz said.
Since 2006, Appalachian has had an official partnership with the National Park Service for research and public service projects that help the Blue Ridge Parkway's management team in tight budget times and give the university an easily accessible service-learning opportunity.
According to Schwartz, the corps gives students an incredible opportunity to serve as ambassadors for Appalachian and contribute to the local community by teaching others to be respectful of natural resources.
"To be able to spend my Saturday or Sunday out there makes me feel like I'm actually contributing to the community," said junior Caitlin Lamb, sustainable development major and recreation management minor.
This opportunity also provides student volunteers with relevant career experience.
Stout said, "After I graduate, I hope to work with the park service in environmental education or in a biology field, and this job helps me to interact with visitors and know more about the biology of the park system and know how it works."
Plans are underway to expand the Blue Ridge Parkway Corps to other National Park Service sites. This spring Appalachian received through a competitive grant process one of 18 cooperative agreements with the National Park Service that gives Appalachian the opportunity to work with any of the National Park Service's 391 units.
William Coleman, Communication Major: Rough Ridge is a very popular area. On a sunny weekend, especially in the Fall monthes, you can encounter hundreds of people throughout your four-hour shift there. People are constantly coming and going.
Caitlin Lamb, Sustainable Development Major: We, as the Blue Ridge Parkway Corps, we kind of monitor the trail. Rough Ridge is in need of protection because it's a really sensitive environment. It's high climate. It's got some really unique plants and wildlife that really need to be maintained and protected due to the high traffic of the area.
Bridgett Stout, Parks & Recreation Major: Human presence—just being here and talking to people about why these plants are so fragile—does a better job than just signage. If somebody's here and actually cares about these plants, it makes more of an impact on them than just reading a sign.
Alex Schwartz, Graduate Student, College Student Development: The Blue Ridge Parkway Corps has a few different purposes. We're a joint effort between Appalachian State University and the Blue Ridge Parkway—the National Park Service is who manages them. Our philosophy is to protect it through educating the public. On top of that it provides opportunities for Appalachian State University students to give back to the area, be ambassadors of the school. I think the Blue Ridge Parkway Corps' creation just shows a real commitment to giving back to the local community and because Appalachian students are really using this outdoor resource, and using the Parkway, it just shows a willingness to be involved with it and be invested with it, not just as someone who uses the area but as a person who protects it and is invested in its longer-term existence and being there for others to use.
William Coleman: As volunteers, we maintain a presence out there that the National Park Service can't always provide. We obviously live in a very unique part of the state and that's one of the reasons why I came up here. To have the opportunity to combine recreation with education and communication with the community—I think that it's been an incredible experience. It's given me a position of leadership and I've made a lot of friends and it's just a really cool way to get involved.