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September 16, 2019

The Blue Ridge Parkway is 469 miles long and connects Shenandoah National Park in Virginia with Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. The Parkway was the first national rural parkway intended to be a leisure-type driving experience. It is celebrated around the world as a roadway that “lies easily” on the land and blends into the landscape. And not only is it beautiful, the Blue Ridge Parkway brings in $980 million dollars annually to its adjacent communities.

This week’s Focus of Friends series highlights The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, the primary philanthropic partner to the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Foundation was created in 1997 to provide a vehicle for people to participate as stewards of this incredible park. It helps to ensure that Parkway land, wildlife, and cultural and historic sites not only survive but thrive. In the past 20 years, the Foundation has invested more than $14 million in projects and programs that enhance the visitor experience, address safety issues, and reach out to educate and inspire visitors to engage more deeply with their park.

We recently interviewed Dr. Carolyn Ward, CEO of The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation. Dr. Ward was first introduced to Friends Groups when she joined the board of the North Coast Redwoods Interpretive Association in northern California. In 2009, she came to the Parkway to start the Kids in Parks program in partnership with the national park and the Foundation.

The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation operates as an independent 501(c)3 fundraising partner to the Parkway through a Friends Agreement with the National Park Service (NPS). And Dr. Ward says that in the past 20 years, the Foundation has worked in partnership with NPS staff to identify and select projects and programs for funding. Some of these projects include the construction of a visitor center, restrooms, and parking, restoration of historic buildings, repair to trails, and the addition of interpretive exhibits and wayside panels in numerous locations throughout the park.

One of their longest running and most successful projects involves the Moses H. Cone Memorial Park, a country estate developed in the late 19thand early 20thcentury by textile magnate Moses Cone and his wife, Bertha. The estate included a mansion, carriage roads, an apple orchard, and two lakes. Today, it is a popular destination for visitors and outdoor recreation enthusiasts. The Foundation has worked on projects at the estate for 20 years and has recently launched a $3.6 million campaign to restore and renovate historic Flat Top Manor, repair the carriage trails, historic stone walls, and create additional opportunities for education.

Despite all their accomplishments in restoration, repair, and construction, Dr. Ward says that one of the Foundation’s greatest successes is the operation of Parkway programs. The group operates two signature programs: Kids in Parks and the Blue Ridge Music Center concert programming. Kids is Parks is a national award-winning program that was started in 2009 to help foster the next generation of stewards for the Blue Ridge Parkway. The program’s network includes 200 partner locations in city, county, state, and national parks across the country. The program has enabled over 1 million adventures for children and families to get outdoors and active for their health and the health of our public lands. Because of the work surrounding this program, the Foundation received a Champion of Change Award from the White House.

The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation has also supported musical programming at the Blue Ridge Music Center (milepost 213) since 2013. This program helps fulfill the group’s mission to ensure cultural and historical preservation. Concerts are held both on and off the Parkway and serve to bring mountain music to new audiences while preserving and growing mountain music traditions. Since taking on the operation, the Foundation has tripled revenue and attendance.

While there are many successes, there are also challenges. Dr. Ward says that the Blue Ridge Parkway is even more vulnerable to the budget woes and decline in funding that national parks have suffered across the country. And the lack of funding for the Parkway threatens its abundant resources that draw more than 16 million recreational visitors each year—a number which exceeds visitation at Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Canyon National Parks combined.

There are so many opportunities to help the national park, but there is a limit to the group’s capacity. The Foundation works with their Community of Stewards and NPS staff to make the difficult decisions about where to invest their time and our resources. And despite hurdles and challenges, they continue to do great work.

“There is no greater return on investment than to invest in the future of our parks and public lands,” says Dr. Ward. “These are our American treasures and they belong to all of us, and it will take all of us working together to make a difference. Being a park partner by investing your time or resources to help preserve and protect the stories of our past, the natural resources that define America, and the memories of our grandchildren is one of the most worthwhile endeavors one can make.”

The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation is open to anyone who would like to join their Community of Stewards. To learn more about the Foundation, see their projects and programs, sign up to receive their e-news, or donate, visit

Additional information and an excellent video about the Kids in Parks program can be found here and here.  More about the Blue Ridge Music Center programming can be found here.

Carolyn Ward, Ph.D. serves as the CEO of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation.