Visitors to Haywood County will have a fuller view of its mountain beauty this year after a locally funded project left some of the Blue Ridge Parkway vistas a bit barer.
The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority and Maggie Valley Lodging Association earmarked $19,500 to clear a portion of the county’s 73 vistas along the parkway. This is the first year that the tourism agency has taken it upon itself to help preserve the panoramic overlooks that permeate Haywood County.
“The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of our treasures, our jewels,” said Susan Knapko, a member of the tourism board. “Grab you kids, your husband, a picnic, and come look at this.”
The TDA hired three workers, or fallers, in February to begin scaling back the overgrown trees enshrouding some of the county’s most popular and majestic views.
“This is our backyard right here,” said Joanne Martin of the Maggie Valley Lodging Association. “We felt it was a very wise investment.”
The association often directs visitors — a number of whom are motorcycle enthusiasts — to the parkway and its breathtaking views. Without the fallers, trees would shield those views.
While overlooks were a hallmark of the parkway when it was constructed, views have been obscured in the intervening the decades. The parkway hasn’t have enough money to properly clearing them every year, prompting action by the Haywood County tourism agency to take matters into its own hands.
Haywood County is home to more 6,000-foot peaks than anywhere else on the Eastern seaboard. Its section of the Blue Ridge Parkway is likewise the highest elevation stretch of the 469-mile scenic journey from Shenandoah in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains.
As of April 2, the trio had cleared 23 vistas in Haywood County and hoped to clear at least a few more by the end of the week, when their contract with the county expires and their work for the Blue Ridge Parkway starts.
“It’s really a good investment by the community helping us keep our views cleared,” said Phil Francis, superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway. “People come to the parkway over and over, and they notice the difference.”
Francis added that he hears complaints about the overgrown trees that crop up and inhibit visitors’ ability to enjoy particular sights.
“As the parkway has gotten older and the trees have gotten taller, it has been a challenge to keep up with maintaining those views,” Francis said. “The plant material grows up too fast.”
The parkway has launched a campaign of its own to clear overlooks on a more regular schedule.
“Every three years is not what we would prefer. It’s what we can afford,” Francis said.
The three fallers will join the parkway’s payroll next Monday and continue clearing vistas throughout Western North Carolina until late September.
The Haywood County TDA money “allowed us to get a head start,” said Chris Ulrey, one of the fallers.
The Blue Ridge Parkway also contracts seven other people to clear some of the roads more than 100 vistas in North Carolina. The contract is $235,000.
A light touch
Clearing clutter from the vistas’ views is not as simple as it may sound. Workers must be deliberate in which trees to cut down and consider the wildlife that lives in the forest surrounding the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The fallers must first survey each vista and see which trees they should cut and which they should prune. They descend the steep slopes down from the overlooks and use chain saws to either trim limbs or hew a tree. If possible, the workers get the tree to fall downhill. The trees then become home to some forest critters and deposit nutrients in the ground as they decay.
While workers used to clear all the trees blocking people’s view, fallers now leave a tree or two here and there for the Carolina Northern Flying Squirrel, an animal found only in the Southern Appalachians. The squirrel travels by gliding from tree to tree so workers now leave some still standing to preserve the species’ habitat.
Although the workers will conclude their stint for Haywood County Friday, some earmarked funds remain unused. It is unknown how much of the $19,500 was spent, said Lynn Collins, executive director of the TDA. But, the leftover money will allow the TDA to rehire the three fallers to trim and cut down trees for a few weeks in October before the weather typically becomes too harsh, she said.
The TDA board debated whether it would be a good idea to keep the fallers working into October, a high point in the tourist season. However, members decided that visitors would likely enjoy seeing a picturesque view open up before them as the workers lop down trees.
“It is so exciting to actually watch these guys go down the mountain sides with chain saws,” Knapko said. “The crew themselves have been so thrilled.”
The tourism board plans to continue the vista project after this year. At a recent meeting, board members discussed finding donors to sponsor the work and possibly allocating a set amount of tourism dollars to the project each year.