Blue Ridge Country November/December 2020 - 30

Virginia Ward is an
accomplished rappeller,
sometimes making 300foot drops on the rope.

30

BLUERIDGECOUNTRY.COM

"We also work with Heller's blazing star," she
continues. "It's only found in three counties in the
world and all on the Blue Ridge Parkway."
Her hard work has resulted in major recognition-she's the only recipient of the 2019 Youth
Award as part of the George and Helen Hartzog
Awards for Outstanding Volunteer Service. George
Hartzog formerly served as National Park Service
Director and established the VIP (Volunteers-inParks) program 50 years ago.
"I spend my summer working long days without pay, going on big hikes and carrying around
ropes," says Virginia. She adds that there's nothing
about the job that she doesn't love and says it's fueled her passion to pursue a career in botany.
Her mother, Carolyn Ward, who is CEO of the
Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, admits she had
some fears after sending Virginia out with the

crews and receiving a text photo showing her daughter hanging off the side of
a rock cliff.
"I thought, did I really give permission
for this?" she says.
"Virginia was interested in being on a
rope, so I spent time training her just as I
do with any employee," says Ulrey. "The
next thing I know she's going down the
cliff like one of the crew. At this point in
my career, it's easy to get frustrated with
bureaucracy. To see someone so enthusiastic has renewed my optimism. She's
helped me more than I've helped her."
Virginia says at Craggy Pinnacle, they
only travel about 30 feet from the rock
face, but in other places it might be a 300foot drop.
"The rocky outcropping after you cross
the Mile-High Swinging Bridge at Grandfather Mountain is one of the places we rappel off of," she says.
Spending time in nature comes naturally to Virginia, who is currently a sophomore at Nesbitt Discovery Academy,
which is a STEM high school in Asheville.
As an only child growing up without close
neighbors, she spent hours exploring the
woods, riding horses and looking at plants.
"My mom would take me out when I
was 4 years old. She would pick up all the
leaves she could find and get me to identify them," she says.
She's dedicated to helping protect the
environment as much as possible, and
while she's proud of the award, she turns
the focus back to the plants.
"I would really like people to know
there are trails and barriers for a reason,"
she says. "This plant [Geum radiatum] is declining due to trampling by people going off-trail. The
trails are there for the safety of the habitat that
you're in. At one of the locations at Rough Ridge,
which is a popular hiking spot, there's actually a
boardwalk that runs through the rocky outcropping. A lot of people like to go over the wall for the
scenic view," she says.
"People are attracted to rocks beyond the wall
so they can pose for social media," says Ulrey. "But
in the process of doing that, they trample fragile
plants. These are Alpine relics. They are from the
Ice Age. They're not adapted to being stepped on."
Virginia Ward hopes everyone will be mindful
of signs and barriers.
"It's not that we're scared you're going to fall
off the cliff. We're scared that you are going to
crush the plants," she says.


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Blue Ridge Country November/December 2020

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