Editor's note: In this, the second part of a biographical look at Gary Everhardt's career with the National Park Service and specifically as superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Randy Johnson focuses on Mr. Everhardt's caretaking of the Parkway and the impact he had on those who followed in his footsteps.
Significance of the Parkway
The significance of the Parkway makes Mr. Everhardt’s career more than simply interesting. The Parkway lies within a day’s drive of 50 percent of the U.S. population. “That’s a lot of people,” he says. “How many people can get to Yellowstone in a day? Most of us are lucky to get there once in a lifetime.”
That makes the Parkway more than a road. For millions of Americans—almost 20 million in most years—it’s a portal, but not just to national parks. The Parkway is a portal to the Southern Appalachian experience, a place where Americans encounter their history and culture with a long drive along the spine of summits that was our country’s first frontier.
Interpretation of that past “was sorely lacking on the Parkway in the 1950s,” Mr. Everhardt says. “I’m glad we started to put a lot of emphasis into interpretation back then.”
Mr. Everhardt followed up with stellar interpretive facilities that have help make the Parkway what it is today. “It’s a 3-legged stool,” he says. “We have rangers for resource protection and maintenance to keep the place spruced up. The other leg is interpretation, to impart the value of the lands and cultural resources we protect. That’s how we teach our children to be the future conservators of our heritage.”
Putting “Meat on the Bones”
Throughout his involvement, Gary Everhardt says, “The Parkway was a busy place, engrossed in building the road, the spine of the park. We finished that in ’87—but that’s just the skeleton. Now it’s time to put meat on those bones.”
“I don’t think the Parkway is safe,” says current Superintendent Phil Francis. “We are taking important steps, based on the foundation that Gary laid. But we need to greatly accelerate our efforts to preserve the Parkway’s undeveloped viewshed, those ‘borrowed landscapes’ that are so important to the visitor experience.
“Ninety-seven percent of Parkway visitors come to see the scenic views—but we don’t own those views,” Francis says. “We’re in a recession now, but the building boom will be back. On the table right now, we have $30 million of land available from people who want to sell their land and protect the Parkway. We just don’t have the money.”
“If you ask any park manager,” adds Mr. Everhardt, “the process of protection never goes fast enough. You could name a dozen Parkway priorities today, but corridor protection is No. 1. It’s critical to keeping the Parkway relevant.”
Under Gary Everhardt’s watch in 1996, the North Carolina Year of the Mountains Commission chose preservation of the Parkway corridor and viewshed as a critical mission, urging that property owners along the Parkway grant scenic easements. Hugh Morton played a role in that achievement, and earlier along U.S. 221, below the Linn Cove Viaduct, when he and Mr. Everhardt orchestrated the purchase of a tract of private land and transferred it to the U.S. Forest Service.
Since then, critical viewsheds have been identified by Parkway landscape architects. Best of all, says Superintendent Francis, in the past 15 years, 5,000 acres have been added by conservancy groups.
“The great thing,” says Mr. Everhardt, “is that people are starting to act. The conservancy land groups are stepping up to the table with real money. With a little bit of federal partnership, we can work wonders.”
In a characteristically colorful turn of phrase, Mr. Everhardt says, “The National Park Service is loved by a greater percentage of the American people than Ivory Soap is pure. The American people want to contribute.”
The Stewardship Committee of 75th Anniversary organization has worked with the Congress “and a bill has been introduced in the House and Senate to raise $75 million,” says Superintendent Francis. “We’re not likely to get that in the short term. But hopefully, one day we’ll find a way to raise that money to protect the Parkway.”
There’s more at stake than views. Superintendent Francis says the 469-mile, north-to-south range of the road is a critical “transect” of land needed to protect biodiversity and deter habitat fragmentation along the Southern Appalachians. Add to the Parkway adjacent headwaters of more than a dozen different watersheds, the future need to protect our water supply, and “the importance of lands next to the Parkway increases.”
“If the plan for the future works,” Gary Everhardt says, “we buy a large corridor for the Parkway, maintain it well, interpret the resource, the ranger staff is adequate, and everybody goes home happy!”
The Challenge Remains
Partnerships with citizen groups and governments will be critical to that future. “I give great credit to the current superintendent—he’s doing a fantastic job fostering partnerships,” Mr. Everhardt says. “Land acquisition is accelerating with the help of organizations like the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, with their license tag program. We were out beating the drums, but I didn’t do a lot developing partnerships. It’s a more formalized process now. I wish I’d thought up all those funding sources!”
True to Gary Everhardt’s modesty, those who’ve followed him beg to differ.
Superintendent Phil Francis says, “Gary deserves credit for today’s partnerships. We’re just following his example!”
At least one great example of that teamwork happened when funding for the viaduct “seemed likely to be lost and there was the fear that something else would be done with the money,” says Mr. Everhardt. “But Hugh Morton, Banner Elk Mayor Charles VonCannon, and other great supporters of the Parkway went to Washington to testify. Their passionate plea was key. Without their help, we could have lost the funding, been further delayed or derailed.”
“Gary brought a unique perspective to the Parkway,” points out Superintendent Francis. “He came here after serving as director of the National Park Service, after serving out West, so he brought to the table connections and political acumen that many people wouldn’t possess. When he arrived here, as he’d done elsewhere, he started developing partnerships and working with our neighbors. That is more important on the Parkway than at many parks because most all the threats to the Parkway originate outside our boundary.”
“Gary knew better than anyone, having served in Washington, how important relationship building is,” he continues. “And having stayed here 23 years, being a native of North Carolina, having a degree from NC State—all that permitted him to achieve things like finishing the Linn Cove Viaduct.”
Superintendent Francis pauses, inwardly inventorying the years. “Gary was the right person at the right time,” he says. “Thankfully he stayed here a long time. All that’s why we’re sitting in a building named after Gary Everhardt.”
How appropriate it is that the man who completed the Linn Cove Viaduct is also widely acclaimed for building bridges between people. “I never asked Congress to do anything for Gary Everhardt,” he says. “I was lucky enough to be able to have people like Hugh Morton and the public to ask for those things.”
Looking Back—to the Future
After years working through controversy on the way to redeeming the Parkway’s potential, Gary Everhardt looks charitably on friends and foes (if he has any of the latter).
“I hate to find fault with anybody,” he says. “A lot of people want to fault Congress, or the Administration. The good in us is that almost everybody does for parks what they can—given the circumstances, constraints, and freedoms that they operate under—at the time they’re there to do it.”
Gary Everhardt’s personal philosophy mirrors his own assessment of other people’s good motives. If the national parks are “America’s best idea,” they shine as brightly as they do through the best efforts of people like Gary Everhardt.
Mr. Everhardt continues to contribute in retirement. After his 23 years (1977-2000) guiding the Parkway, Dan Brown followed him as superintendent (2000-2005). Mr. Brown had himself worked on the Parkway twice, once while Mr. Everhardt was boss. Phil Francis says, “Because Gary stayed in the community, he was a resource to Dan. Now here I am (2005-present), having met Gary way back in the '70s, spending 2 weeks here in 1978 learning how to be a park manager. Here we are again, me the new super on the block, getting to take advantage of all the wisdom Gary has to offer.”
“When I joined, there were 150 units of the National Park Service,” Mr. Everhardt says. “Today there are nearly 400. There were 5,000 permanent employees. Now, I’ll guess there’s about 22,000. It’s a big job telling people about parks that are such a big part of our past. It’s a good thing that we’re slow to change the parks. If you don’t know the past, how can you look to your future?”
Gary Everhardt is one of the people we’ve charged with preserving that past. He’s done that on the Parkway—and completed a road to the future, to boot.
Randy Johnson is author of two bestselling trail guides to the Parkway (Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway and Best Easy Day Hikes Blue Ridge Parkway) among other books. He launched the Grandfather Mountain trail preservation program in 1978 and often worked with Gary Everhardt during the completion of the Grandfather part of the Parkway. Randy was a design consultant for the Parkway’s Tanawha Trail. Today, Randy is the Task Force Leader for the Tanawha Trail portion of the Mountains-to-Sea. Visit his website to see his books.