By Joseph Wiswell
Last winter a team armed with chainsaws and radios descended on the High Country to clear away trees from the Blue Ridge Parkway’s scenic overlooks. They worked like a well-oiled machine, coordinating their actions through their radios for maximum efficiency. Over the course of a week and a half their work took them from the Thunderhill overlook (MP 290.4) south toward Grandfather mountain. Wright Tilley of the Watauga county TDA said that their speed and efficiency was “amazing to watch.”
The team is called the Arborist Incident Response Team and they had practice for this project from working in extreme situations, in the aftermath of natural disasters all around the country. Last winter, though, they were part of the National Park Service’s relatively tame “Renew the Views” campaign, an effort to clear some the trees that have grown up along the Parkway since it was constructed back in 1935.
When construction began on the Parkway back in the 1930s, the forests surrounding the road’s winding route had only just begun to regrow. The forests had faced heavy logging earlier in the century and the young trees that construction crews found posed only a minor obstacle to the Parkway’s iconic vistas.
More than 80 years later the landscape has changed considerably. The National Park Service regularly clears trees from overlooks, but up until this year they have only cleared small vegetation, and left the background growing. The Renew the Views campaign is an effort to return the overlooks to the way they originally looked–enhancing the Parkway experience overall.
This is an important effort in a place where the Parkway is the number one tourism asset. Many people come to the High Country looking for those incredible, long-distance views you can’t find in flatter parts of the region. Tilley says that “having those long range views opened up will help us make sure the Parkway remains a vital resource.”
It was the clear tourism interests that made this project possible. Funding came from the Watauga and Haywood county tourism development authorities and the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation.
Environmentally, the project has been neutral or good overall. This was largely because the Arborist Incident Response Team left the trees where they fell. This means that the fallen trees will release nutrients into the environment as they decay, and provide a habitat for helpful species of fungi and shrews. The team also left the tree stumps, which means the trees will re-sprout and come back even denser than before.