By Linda Coutant
It's a long distance between Las Vegas and Vale, N.C., but teachers from both locales met during summer 2008 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Julie Candland excitedly snapped photographs for her third-graders back home in Nevada who have never seen the parkway's lush greenery and majestic views. She hopes images of a contrasting landscape will enliven her geography lessons and inspire students' writing exercises.
Social studies teacher Rene Porch '79 used to consider the parkway an escape from college homework, but now it's a perfect metaphor for social change when discussing "roads to civilization"—like the ancient Silk Road and the modern-day Internet—with her students at West Lincoln High School.
What brought the teachers together was a weeklong National Endowment for the Humanities institute hosted by Appalachian State University called "Not Just a Scenic Road: The Blue Ridge Parkway and Its History." Candland and Porch were among 75 school teachers participating in the institute, which was offered twice in July, to learn from Appalachian faculty and other experts what the roadway can teach about the environment, Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and social issues both old and new.
Besides visiting popular tourist spots, the K-12 teachers learned about the parkway's historical, social and recreational significance and designed lesson plans around topics such as eminent domain, federal and local politics, Appalachian culture and economic development.
The parkway is, in essence, a continuing saga of American life. And like a trusted neighbor, Appalachian honors its story and tends to its care.
"It's a wonderful opportunity to revisit the college experience and academically investigate an experience we all loved," Porch said of her summer experience. "And all Appalachian alumni love the Blue Ridge Parkway!"
The most visited park site, the Blue Ridge Parkway is certainly more than a narrow stretch of asphalt. As a roadway, its 469 miles connect two national parks, the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and the Shenandoah in Virginia. As a national treasure, it connects the hearts of its visitors with the regional landscape. With more than 20 million travelers a year, the Blue Ridge Parkway is the National Park Service's most visited site.
It's a natural fit that Appalachian, located so nearby, can help care for the Blue Ridge Parkway, which for generations of students has been "the" getaway for hiking, quiet time or a relaxing drive. That recreational relationship has turned far more academic and service-learning oriented in recent years.
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 learning lab.
As the teachers' NEH institute at Appalachian this summer proved, there are many ways to experience the Blue Ridge Parkway. Academic disciplines from biology and geography to communication generate useful information and services for the parkway that its management otherwise may not have pursued or would have found costly.
"There's a lot of work on the parkway that simply doesn't get done," explained Bambi Teague, chief of resource management and science for the Blue Ridge Parkway. "Appalachian is able to give us what we need and in turn we can give experience to students. I love that we're able to offer students real-life problems."
While some faculty had been working with the Blue Ridge Parkway for several years, a key project leading to the official partnership took place in spring 2006 when the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation approached the Department of History about having someone investigate the history of Moses Cone's Flat Top Manor, especially its original furnishings. Neva Specht was teaching a graduate-level course in material culture at the time and thought the request could make an interesting class exercise.
"The class did a fantastic job. They looked into all aspects of the house, they tracked down the will, made contacts with people who may have had the original furnishings, and they came up with an interpretive notebook currently used by interpreters as they give tours of the house," Specht said.
The history class's success with Flat Top Manor sparked more conversations between the Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian. Soon after, Provost Stan Aeschleman appointed Specht the official go-to person for matching parkway needs with faculty expertise. The faculty members, in turn, make what could be single-person research projects into class-wide activities that connect textbook theory with real social issues.
"A lot of people on campus are taking part in the parkway," said Specht. "It's very cross-disciplinary."
Associate professor Norman Clark, who teaches in the Department of Communication, said he chose the parkway for his Public Service Research Program course because it has "such a wide range of issues—plant life, economic issues, political issues, communication issues, sociological issues."
He led students on a project involving trail use. "The Blue Ridge Parkway provides an amazing learning opportunity. Students get a sense of the history of the parkway but also how to be forward-looking in their problem solving and not just come up with short-term fixes."
Long-term stewardship is what citizens in both North Carolina and Virginia are being asked to remember as the parkway prepares for its 75th anniversary celebration in 2010 and another century of visitors.
Towards that goal, the Blue Ridge Parkway management team has sought public comments for a general management plan which will be approved by 2010, its first since the 1940s.
"The parkway is a special place, and if we care about it we need to focus on the responsibility that comes with it. We're facing issues. The budget isn't what it needs to be and the natural resources are being impacted by visitors," said Leesa Brandon, the parkway's 75th anniversary coordinator.
A series of events involving local communities is being planned to emphasize stewardship and connect the parkway's anniversary with the 75th anniversaries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2009 and Shenandoah National Park in 2011.
"The parkway is a national treasure," Brandon said. "Its biodiversity and cultural memories are an important part of the American story. Everyone from elected officials to the general public, including people who may take it for granted, have a chance to get involved. If you love it, consider what's happening and how you can be involved."
In the early 1900s at the peak of the Moses Cone Estate's apple production, workers spread a white powder containing lead arsenate throughout the orchards as a pesticide. Today, students in an environmental toxicology course sample the grass, soil, apples, trees and stream sediment and are finding that certain amounts of the lead arsenate continue to permeate the property.
This summer, the students expanded last year's toxicology studies to measure the contaminant's presence in the food chain, such as in the cattle that graze the property and the fish in Bass Lake, just downhill from the orchards.
"Is it an issue? We want to find out," Shea Tuberty, assistant professor of biology, said about possible food-chain contamination. "This is an incredible opportunity for undergraduates to perform cutting edge research using equipment that most schools don't even have, and do it as a public service."
The National Park Service considers two popular trails problematic because of user issues: Rough Ridge Trail, where hikers frequently leave marked paths and damage native plants, and Bass Lake Trail, where horseback riders and walkers with dogs must share the same pathway.
Students in an interdisciplinary Public Service Research Program course last spring developed possible solutions to these issues. Their research included conducting trail-use studies and examining policies at other national parks. In their presentation to the NPS, they recommended better instructional signage at both locations; a designated rock at Rough Ridge where hikers could leave the trail without risk of damaging vegetation; and establishment of a dog park at Bass Lake.
The course was funded by a federal Learn and Serve America grant, which will support the class for two more years.
Walkers at Bass Lake now have a much-needed restroom facility thanks to students in the Department of Technology. A studio class led by assistant professor Chad Everhart came up with 10 designs a year ago, which they presented to the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation and National Park Service. The organizations chose the best design elements, and the Foundation raised money for the project. Construction began over the summer.
Megan Harris, a sophomore building science major, participated in the studio class and assisted with the construction. "The biggest thing that I have learned from this is the overall experience of seeing a project go from the design stage to being laid out in drawings to seeing it all be built," she said. "It has helped me to understand a lot more about the details of how a building fits together, something that can't be read in a book."
Students in a public relations class founded the first-ever college chapter of the nonprofit FRIENDS of the Blue Ridge Parkway in early 2008. The chapter volunteers time to help operate facilities and programs at the level expected by visitors despite federal budgetary shortfalls—which last year alone resulted in 57 unfilled positions. In April, the students held their first trail maintenance project at Price Park, where they cleaned up debris and reinstalled a wooden bridge.
Meanwhile, Outdoor Programs has partnered with FRIENDS of the Blue Ridge Parkway to form a service-learning opportunity called the Blue Ridge Parkway Corps. The corps consists of 12 student volunteers who serve as a uniformed presence along popular trails and overlooks. They educate hikers in hopes they will stay on the trail and not trample sensitive vegetation.
Joanna Pardo, a junior biology major, is among the volunteers. "The parkway is such a beautiful and popular area. Most kids I know go out on the parkway usually at least once a week," she said. "I've stepped off the hiking trails before and never considered the impact. Now I'll be one of those who informs others 'don't step there.'"
Graduate student Stephanie Smith in the Department of Geography and Planning is using Google Earth to create an information map for the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation's Web site, detailing where the parkway is located and how private support creates opportunities beyond what's possible with federal funding.
Smith is continuing a connection between Appalachian geographers and the Blue Ridge Parkway that started in the late 1980s when professor Art Rex used Geographic Information Systems and satellite imagery to document the viewshed from various overlooks.
As the university has expanded its involvement with the parkway, Rex said he still sees the collaboration as a natural fit: "Appalachian can do these things, we want to be involved with the parkway, and we have students who need good, practical experience."
In 1947, the NPS acquired the 3,600-acre Moses Cone Estate and its Flat Top Manor. In 2007, Appalachian co-hosted a symposium on the majestic home and its residents, including Bertha Cone who adroitly ran her husband's apple orchards for 40 years after his death.
The two-day event featured public presentations on issues of class, gender, race and religion and brought new insight into the story of the textile king's summer home. It was sponsored with the Blowing Rock Historical Society and Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation.
The university has sponsored campus presentations by UNC Chapel Hill's Anne Whisnant, author of Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History. Her research reveals lesser-known facts about the parkway—including the political connections that reversed a federal decision favoring a Tennessee route and instead made possible the existing North Carolina route.
"There's a lot of work on the parkway that simply doesn't get done," explained Bambi Teague, chief of resource management and science for the Blue Ridge Parkway.
"Appalachian is able to give us what we need and in turn we can give experience to students. I love that we're able to offer students real-life problems."
Source: National Park Service