By Jack Betts and Broaddus Fitzpatrick
Virginia and North Carolina are two competitive states — in sports, in economics, in academics and in their magnificent environments running from the mountain ridges down to the coastlines. Residents of both the Commonwealth of Virginia and the State of North Carolina have exceptional pride in the beautiful local, state and federal parks — particularly the 469-mile long Blue Ridge Parkway, which the two states share.
So why do North Carolinians provide so much more support for the Parkway?
Not everyone realizes this, but the Blue Ridge Parkway by at least one measure is the most popular unit in the National Park System. In 2021, the Parkway had more visitors than any other national park — nearly 16 million, more than Great Smoky Mountains National Park, more than Yellowstone or Yosemite or any other of our great parks. That’s a lot of visitors, and it requires a lot of maintenance along its winding path from Waynesboro, Va., to Cherokee, N.C.
Too often that means not enough money to keep the Parkway in the condition that Virginians and North Carolinians expect. That’s why the National Park Service depends on the nonprofit Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation to raise money to help preserve, protect and restore the Parkway.
Some facilities along the way are shut down — the beloved Rocky Knob Housekeeping Cabins, Bluffs Lodge, Crabtree Meadows Coffee Shop near Little Switzerland, and on and on. Campgrounds built during the Great Depression era are out of date, their spartan washrooms reflective of an earlier time and the RV sites small and lacking utility hookups. The roadway is rough in certain places, and many of the 900-plus roadside vistas are overgrown, marring the once-stunning views of the Virginia and Carolina landscapes.
In North Carolina, drivers of trucks, cars and motorcycles found in recent years an easy way to support maintenance, restoration, natural resource protection, construction of new facilities and the reopening of historic structures along the way. They purchase and annually renew vehicle license plates recognizing the beauty of the Blue Ridge Parkway. When that program started 18 years ago, it brought in a modest $68,000. In recent years it has generated more than $500,000 per year — enough to provide more than $9 million for Parkway improvements, maintenance and new programs.
Those drivers provide that money not just for the North Carolina section of the Parkway, but for the Virginia section as well. North Carolina law does not restrict use of North Carolina plate money, so Virginia’s 217-mile section of the Parkway has benefitted in many ways. The benefits include operation of the summertime concert and daily music program at the Blue Ridge Music Center near Galax, extended to other locations along the Parkway this year; restoration of the waterwheel and flume at historic Mabry Mill near Meadows of Dan, restoring Polly Wood’s Ordinary and buildings at Johnson Farm near Peaks of Otter, rehabbing historic structures at Humpback Rocks and completed the first ADA-compliant trail and fishing pier at Abbott Lake at Peaks of Otter.
Too bad Virginia doesn’t have a vehicle plate that directly provides support for the Parkway. Too bad that Virginia motorists don’t have an easy way to provide financial support and show their pride in this exceptional roadway.
But one may soon be available, if enough Virginia residents sign up by the end of December. As the official philanthropic partner of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Foundation is accepting applications from Virginia drivers for a beautiful specialty license plate that will provide funds to accomplish projects and programs within the national park. Hundreds of Virginians have already filled out the short form and sent a $25 check to show that they’ll support the system, and that’s good. But the Foundation needs at least
50 [now 10, as of Dec. 12] more Virginia drivers willing to sign up now — before the December deadline — so the Virginia General Assembly can officially approve the plate and start offering it to vehicle owners in 2023.
Virginia residents who wish to have one of the new plates cannot sign up with VDOT or DMV yet, but ordering the plate is easy. Go to GetThePlate.org and follow the directions. If you have questions, call the Foundation at (866) 308-2773, ext. 245.
Written by retired journalist Jack Betts of Meadows of Dan, a native North Carolinian, and retired attorney Broaddus Fitzpatrick of Roanoke. Both are former chairs of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation Board of Trustees.