Interview with Chief Landscape Architect, Gary Johnson

We all know National Parks are naturally magnificent places to visit, but have you ever wondered how these attractions stay preserved and protected in order to remain beautiful?

We wondered who was behind all the hard work so we contacted Gary Johnson, who has been chief landscape architect at Blue Ridge Parkway for the last 16 years. Gary Johnson received an award for excellence in cultural resource management on March 17 in New Orleans at the 2011 George Wright Society Conference on Parks, Protected Areas and Cultural Sites. He has been advocating the protection of visual resources for years and has literally written the book that aids in preserving the Parkway’s roads, trails, beautiful vistas, wildlife, fall colors and endless scenery.

Blue Ridge Parkway is a relaxing, scenic 469 mile drive linking Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the south and Shenandoah National Park to the northern end. Construction of the park began in September 1935 at Cumberland Knob as part of the New Deal’s efforts to provide jobs for the unemployed during the Great Depression.

We had the opportunity to ask Mr. Johnson a few questions. Here they are!

Q: You sound passionate and dedicated to your job. How did you initially become interested in cultural resource management?

A: Growing up in Virginia in the 1950’s, I developed a keen interest in the Commonwealth’s history from Jamestown through the Civil War (“War Between the States”). From that time I was interested in reading about events, places and people until I was assigned the task of preparing a cultural landscape management plan, my first. The plan was to document and recommend management of the formal landscape, promenades and hot spring features administered by Hot Springs NP in Arkansas. That was the turning point in my career.

Q: What is your everyday life like as a chief landscape architect for Blue Ridge Parkway?

A: Chief is the operable word–managing program budgets, supervision of staff, meetings to address issues—natural and cultural resources, scenery conservation, road repair, driver road safety, trimming of vegetation, etc. Too much time in the office, too little time out enjoying scenic views, hiking trails or driving the Parkway.

Q: What are some of the most visited natural attractions at Blue Ridge Parkway? Do you have a favorite?

A: Each year some 18 million visitors travel portions of the 469 mile-long motor road that courses five mountain ranges with some ridge tops over a mile high down to river valleys only 600 feet above sea level. Some of the most visited mountain peaks with trails and scenic views are Humpback Rocks, Sharp Top, Roanoke Mountain, and Rocky Knob in Virginia. In North Carolina trails and scenic views abound in Doughton Park, Grandfather Mountain, Craggy Gardens and the Mount Pisgah area. Because there is such a variety of landscapes and natural features along the Parkway my favorite place(s) change by the season and my need to recharge.

Q: What can travelers and visitors of the Parkway do to protect the Parkway?

A: The most important thing adult visitors can do for protecting the Parkway is to bring their children to camp, hike, visit historic sites, attend campfire programs, etc. Children are the future stewards of the Parkway and other national parks. Without their caring for and perpetuating these great outdoor areas we may all lose these nationally significant resources and the many opportunities for recreation.

Q: What are some of the hardest challenges you’ve faced as chief landscape architect?

A: Our Parkway mantra is “More Than Just a Road.” While it was established by Congress as such, we now know that beyond the motor road and within 80,000 acres of Parkway land, the natural resources are so abundant that the Parkway is the third most biologically diverse unit out of some 390 park units under management of the National Park Service. Juxtaposed with that is the Parkway motor road and its designed landscape, one of the most significant and intact roadway cultural resources in America.  The challenge is how to manage the significant natural resources without compromising the integrity of the cultural resources. That is my everyday challenge.

Q: The Linn Cove Viaduct in North Carolina is titled an “environmentally sensitive, award winning bridge.” What exactly does environmentally sensitive mean?

A: The planned parkway alignment around Grandfather Mountain included crossing the Linn Cove boulder field. This area was characterized as environmentally sensitive because the mountainside is thickly covered with trees and shrubs and huge boulders are strewn along the slope. The goal for crossing this area with a bridge was to utilize a construction technique that would minimize ground disturbance and loss of vegetation. The idea was for the bridge at completion to appear as if it had always been there—with trees, shrubs and boulders being untouched. That result was accomplished and now the Linn Cove Viaduct has become a photographic icon of the Parkway.

Q: What is the best time of the year to visit and experience the Parkway in order to see all of the beautiful scenery?

A: The Parkway offers remarkable scenery year round. However, winter is not the best time to visit since many of the higher elevation mountain sections of Parkway are closed due to snow and ice and most visitor facilities are not open. Spring begins the visitor season with flowering trees and shrubs followed by summertime lush green evergreen and deciduous forest cover and into fall with spectacular views of fall color. There are over 900 overlooks and roadside vistas from which to view scenic Southern Appalachian forested mountain sides and rural farm lands while driving the parkway. Over 350 miles of leg stretcher and long distance trails are available in the park. Rock climbing, bouldering, and road biking are other popular recreational activities. Yes, I am a shameless promoter for this wonderful park.

Q: What are some of your goals that you’d like to see accomplished in the future? Were you part of constructing the Blue Ridge Parkway General Management Plan?

A: Congress requires that each national park unit have a general management plan (GMP). Over the past several years I have served as the park’s project manager working with other NPS staff to prepare a draft management plan that is tentatively scheduled for release to the public for comment this fall. Some of the goals we established are:

Conservation of Scenic Views–Viewing scenery is the number one reason visitors give for coming to the Parkway. What most visitors don’t realize is that what they see from parkway overlooks and roadside vistas is a “borrowed landscape.” Over 60% of the scenic landscapes viewed from the parkway are privately owned.

Community Collaboration—Studies of Parkway economic impact indicates that over $2.3 million in revenue is derived annually in local communities from parkway visitors. Given the relationship between visitors spending in local communities and the primary reason they come is to view scenery, park staff need to work more closely with community officials, adjacent land owners and residents.

Revitalization of Visitor Facilities—Parkway campgrounds and concession lodges and restaurants constructed mostly in the 1940’s and 50’s do not meet today’s visitor needs and need to be improved.

Q: Prior to your current position, you served for 18 years in field assignments in the Southeastern United States and in the Denver Service Center as a project manager and landscape architect. What was that like and what is one of your most memorable experiences?

A: Variety being the spice of life certainly characterizes that time in my life. I worked all over America in over 50 national parks units completing planning, design or construction projects. My most memorable experiences have to be on projects in Alaska. Awesome almost describes the parks in that state. One Alaska experience that was very different for me was being in Nome for the finish of the 1992 Iditarod race.  Yes, I was actually there working on a project in March—cold but beautiful.

Q: Visiting Blue Ridge Parkway sounds like such a beautiful journey! Where can we find a map of the Parkway and list of attractions?

A: A good place to begin trip planning to visit the Blue Ridge Parkway is on the park website: There you can find Quick links to: directions, operating hours & seasons, fees and reservations, road closures, regional attractions, developed areas along the parkway, food & lodging. Come share the journey.

We want to thank Mr. Johnson for answering our questions and most of all, his dedication to preserving our National Parks.

Blue Ridge Parkway celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2010 and  attracts 17 million people each year.

For more information about the Park, visit the U.S. National Park Service’s web site or the official Blue Ridge Parkway web site. For more information on the award Gary Johnson received, click here.

“Thanks to Johnson’s hard work, images of the parkway will include protected scenic views, historic rustic stone walls and intact designed landscapes for many years to come.” – Parkway Superintendent, Philip Francis

It’s called “Blue” Ridge Parkway for a reason!

Interview by Rachel Kerbo, Bonvoy Adventure Travel

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