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Making Money on Memories While Protecting Mountains

The Blue Ridge National Heritage Area was recently featured in the Asheville Citizen-Times in an article by Dale Neal.

Instead of extractive industries that harvest, our economy depends heavily on the experience industry, better known as tourism.

“For more than a century, big business has made money extracting resources from the Appalachians, whether it was virgin forest in our area or rich veins of coal farther north in the mountain chain.

Now, instead of extractive industries, our economy depends heavily on the experience industry, better known as tourism. We’ve always been good at drawing visitors who leave their money behind and take only memories, and maybe a few souvenirs from downtown shops, the Folk Arts Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway or Qualla Arts & Crafts in Cherokee.

At the annual meeting of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area this week, writer Dayton Duncan, a collaborator with Ken Burns on the documentary “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” reminded his audience of why preserving our best lands and our unique culture in music and crafts makes good business sense.

Those views from the Blue Ridge Parkway or of a sheltered cove in the Great Smoky Mountains are priceless. But surrounding towns and residents depend on music and mountains for taxes and steady jobs.

“We’ve learned that preserving our sacred places can be good for business. It draws millions of visitors to this region each year who wind up spending money and strengthening our economy,” Duncan said.

Good mountain music can not only make you want to tap your feet, but also does its part for the local economy, thanks to a new Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina — an initiative to promote traditional music venues and draw more fans. “If you threw a rock in these woods, you’re bound to hit someone playing a banjo or guitar,” Duncan joked.

Natural and cultural heritage aren’t just feel-good, quality-of-life abstractions.

An economic impact study for the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area partnership showed that tourism and related businesses represented a $2.39 billion industry for the mountains, generating $176.5 million in state and local revenues that educate our children, pave our roads, fuel our fire trucks and other services. Heritage meant 30,000 jobs in the present across the 25 counties covered by the region.

Tourism has been under attack before by industries who would see only profits in harvesting forests. When the campaign was underway to protect and form Great Smoky Mountains National Park, timber concerns ran full-page ads in the Asheville Citizen warning that attracting tourists would only take away good paying jobs.

Meanwhile, children black and white in Asheville’s segregated city schools emptied their piggy banks, raising money to create Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Duncan said.

The effort to save those lands for future schoolchildren still continues. Each generation has to fight interests that see only money to be extracted, rather than experiences that can sustain jobs and conservation. This year, the Heritage area partnership received a $15,000 grant from Duke Energy Carolinas to seed efforts to create a training curriculum at area community colleges and Biltmore’s Center for Professional Excellence to train tourism workers in the often-demanding work of dealing with visitors, always with a friendly smile.

“People are starting to get out and want to travel to see our mountains,” said Angie Chandler, executive director of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area partnership.

If visitors leave with better memories, they’re much more likely to return with more money.

This is the opinion of Dale Neal. Reach him at dneal@citizen-times.com or 828-232-5970 or @dale_neal.