By David Rogers. February 14, 2015. BLOWING ROCK, NC — There may have been as many questions raised as questions answered on Friday, in a special meeting involving representatives of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation and various constituent interests of the Blowing Rock community about National Park Service plans for the Cone Manor Estate and its Memorial Park, including the 26-mile network of carriage trails.
The meeting was convened and hosted by Mr. Kent Tarbutton, the owner of Blowing Rock’s Chetola Mountain Resort & Spa. In attendance were Carolyn Ward, Executive Director of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation (BRPF); BRPF board members Willa Mays and Ann Barnes; Mr. Norris Barnes; Morgan Tarbutton, Chetola; Charles Hardin, Executive Director of the Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce; Tracy Brown, Executive Director of the Blowing Rock Tourism Development Authority; Don Wood, Chetola; Zika Rea, Executive Director of ZAP Fitness Foundation; David Rogers, Editor of Blowing Rock News; Scott Fogleman, Blowing Rock Town Manager; and Albert Yount and Ray Pickett, Blowing Rock Town Commissioners.
Mr. Tarbutton opened the meeting by acknowledging the Blowing Rock News editorial of February 1st that first brought increased public scrutiny of National Park Service plans aimed at potentially repurposing the Cone Manor Estate and, in particular, the gaps in the plan details about how it would deal with what it describes as current “conflicting uses” in the two alternatives presented in the 216 page Developed Area Management Plan (DAMP).
Both Mr. Tarbutton and ZAP Fitness principals, as well as Blowing Rock News, came away from a comprehensive reading of the document with concerns for the future use of the carriage trails by organized groups of hikers, trail riders (horses) and runners, which mean so much to the Blowing Rock tourism-centric economy. Ms. Ward pointed out references in the document that specifically mentioned groups of runners and hikers would still be allowed, although it was pointed out to her that even those passages indicated that new restrictions appeared to be intended because of the language used, specifically where it says, “…running groups and hikers/walkers would also be allowed to use some of the road trails…” (emphasis added), with no indication in the document which trails those might be.
Ms. Ward maintained that a management plan for the Cone Manor Estate was necessary for two primary reasons. First, it is necessary to protect the environmental resources so that it can be enjoyed by future generations. A major concern in recent years has been the growing popularity, for example, of mountain biking and mountain skateboarding, both activities that would conflict not only with hikers and walkers on the Cone Manor Estate, but also horseback riders and runners.
Ward stated that she, personally, would like to see the craft guild gift shop in Flat Top Manor moved to somewhere other than the house, to the Carriage Barn or to a store in downtown Blowing Rock, for example, so that visitors to the Manor could get a more authentic feel for life in the house at the turn of the century, “…to be more like Monticello or the Biltmore,” she suggested. “As it is right now, people walk in the front door of the house and their first experience is walking into a gift shop.”
The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation executive made notes as she heard several concerns expressed about the inconsistent permitting process for groups to use the carriage trails. When she observed that many running groups were using the trails without permits, several in the group noted the lack of signage about permits being required.
It was pointed out by Blowing Rock News that the Park Service faced a major challenge in the enforcement of any new policies regarding use of the trail system because of the many points of access: Bass Lake, Trout Lake, U.S. 321, Flat Top Manor, Blue Ridge Parkway overlooks, and the Round Mountain gate, to name the most prominent. Ms. Ward acknowledged the challenge, but said, “Enforcement is not so much going to come from the Park Rangers, but from you, from peer group pressure.”
Individuals in the meeting told Ms. Ward and the other Foundation board members that the suggestion for running groups to be limited to no more than two at a time was ludicrous, even unwise. “To have two high school runners out on the trails by themselves is hardly a smart thing,” Mr. Tarbutton noted, “and there is a real safety concern.”
Everyone at the table acknowledged that the Cone Manor Estate and its carriage trail system is a wonderful recreational resource that needs a measure of protection, but as a publicly owned park, many questioned how far the Park Service should go in restricting access. What was underlined by the end of the meeting is that organized running, hiking and trail riding groups are a mainstay of the Blowing Rock economy and that efforts to regulate use or to repurpose the trail system should keep the economic impact on Blowing Rock in mind.
Whatever understanding might have been taken away from the meeting by the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation folks, it was also made very clear that they were not the National Park Service, which will be the final decision maker in this issue.