Blue Ridge Parkway-North Carolina

A Conversation with Phil Francis, Blue Ridge Parkway Superintendent

May 6, 2010, 8:38 am

Phil Francis became superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway in November 2005 after working in the National Park Service for 34 years, including assignments at Shenandoah, Yosemite, and Great Smoky Mountains national parks.

During his tenure with the National Park Service, Phil has been recognized a number of times, including winning the Department of Interior's Meritorious Award, being listed in the Congressional Record in 2006, and by Discover Life in America, which named a new species to science after Phil in appreciation for his support of the project.

Phil grew up in Grover, NC; received a BS in Administrative Management from Clemson University; and is married to Dr. Becky Nichols, a scientist with Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Q: Where did the idea for the Blue Ridge Parkway originate?
A: The Parkway, which locals still call “The Scenic,” was the result of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and was designed to connect the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Shenandoah National Park. The idea itself originated when Roosevelt, Virginia Senator Harry F. Byrd, and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes were visiting a Civilian Conservation Corps camp during the construction of the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park.

Q: Why is the Blue Ridge Parkway important?
A: There are several reasons, but let me mention the top two. The Parkway serves 29 counties and numerous cities, towns, and villages in Virginia and North Carolina, providing a $2.3 billion economic impact to these communities. For years it has remained the most visited unit of the National Park Service, more than Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone combined. It's important to maintain that unique Blue Ridge Parkway experience so that it can continue to be a gateway to these important communities.

The other reason the Parkway is important is its biological diversity. The Parkway is in the top three most biologically diverse national parks in the country and home to 1,614 varieties of vascular plants, 43 amphibious species, and 75 distinct plant communities, 24 of which are considered globally rare and seven considered globally imperiled. Inside the Parkway's almost 82,000 acres are 15 watersheds and 600 miles of streams, 115 of which are headwaters.

Q: As the Parkway enters its 75th year, what are the biggest challenges it faces?
A: Obviously the budget challenges are enormous. We must participate in the overall responsibilty of restoring our country's economy by doing our part, but this challenges us in maintaining and operating facilities and outdoor spaces to the standard to which people are accustomed, including our important scenic views.

Encroaching development is problematic and not just in the urban areas. We can only control what we own and sometimes we rely on landowners and governments to control much of what the eye can see. Many Parkway employees are reaching retirement age. Within one year, 49% of Parkway staff will be eligible to retire, taking with them knowledge about the Parkway that may never be captured again.

The last trend is probably the most troublesome and that is one of stewardship. So many of us have fond memories of the Parkway growing up, but much of the world is driven by technology and a "go-go" existence that leaves little time for the type of peaceful introspection and exploration the Parkway offers. How do we ensure generational care for the Blue Ridge Parkway? That question is still being answered.

Q: What's the most exciting thing about the Parkway's 75th Anniversary?
A: Working with the gateway communities has been very meaningful. Sometimes I feel like we co-exist, although we definitely have a symbiotic relationship with each and every city, county, and town in the Blue Ridge Parkway region.

It's like we need a covenant with one another: we'll maintain a beautiful, uncluttered outdoor experience for Parkway travelers if the communities will give these same travelers a nice place to stay, good food, and unique experiences. They're doing a great job! Hopefully, the Anniversary year has strengthened these relationships even more.