- Associated Press - Saturday, February 7, 2015

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) - At this time of year the questions rangers on the Blue Ridge Parkway are most often asked usually don’t have to do with the stunning mountain scenery or the habits of wildlife, but tend to be more rooted to the road.

“People are always asking, ‘are you going to close the road?’ Or ‘when are you going to open the road?’” said Chief Ranger Neal Labrie.

The next best thing to a crystal ball that Labrie has in his arsenal is the parkway’s interactive road closure website, https://www.nps.gov/maps/blri/road-closures/.

And he said as helpful as that site has been since it launched about a year and a half ago, it’s about to get a lot better and more user- and mobile-device-user friendly.

Head of all law enforcement and visitor safety on the parkway’s 469 miles of roadway from Cherokee to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, Labrie took over as chief ranger in September from Steve Stinnett, who held the position for eight years and retired last year.

Coming from Katmai National Park in Alaska, Labrie said he’s dealing with significantly different management challenges on the parkway. One is the sheer volume of people and cars.

The parkway had about 1 million more visitors in 2014 than it did in 2013, increasing to 13.9 million visitors last year.

The parkway has extreme differences in weather, especially in winter, when it can be 55 degrees, dry and sunny in Asheville at an elevation of 2,200 feet, but wildly snowy, icy and wintry at 5,000 feet just south of Asheville in the Mount Pisgah area, or even worse at Mount Mitchell, about 30 miles north of Asheville at an elevation of nearly 7,000 feet.

Because of those differences, and the fickle and fast-changing nature of weather, rangers are constantly closing gates to vehicles for safety reasons, and opening them once conditions change, Labrie said.

The park has had an automated road condition line for many years (828-298-0398) but park spokeswoman Leesa Brandon said it can’t be updated often enough to keep up with the many gate openings and closings.

Calls have been decreasing each year, since the website was launched, Brandon said, and now average about 10,000 calls a year.

By contrast, the number of people visiting the road closure website has been increasing. During its first full year, the site had 266,000 views.

The park will be rolling out a new road closure website within the next 30 days, which should give visitors the fastest and most accurate road condition information. It will also soon be available on mobile devices.

“The new map will give people the opportunity to identify points of interest. The current site is not designed for mobile accessibility, but the new version will have capability,” Labrie said.

“Now, if we have a rock slide or a bad accident, we’ll be able to click on the map to the actual area.

Greg Wozniak, the new Pisgsah District Ranger, and his staff do daily checks of road system and make the decision to open or close a gate, Labrie said. They make a call to the dispatch center, where a dispatcher will be able to make a quick click and it will almost instantly appear on the website.

The site is going through an internal beta test now and should go public by February.

“We’re trying to let folks know what’s happening on the parkway and meet their needs. It’s very challenging with 29 counties, to let people know if the road is open,” Labrie said. “It is a dynamic system. It’s not a predictive model. It is a reflection of the current status of the road.”

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Information from: The Asheville Citizen-Times, https://www.citizen-times.com


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