'More like a park' – Trace looks to enhance the experience

By Carlie Kollath | NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – The Natchez Trace Parkway has been quietly changing the past two years.
Motorist and cyclist safety has improved, bathrooms have been upgraded, signage has been changed and exhibits have been overhauled.
Parkway Superintendent Cameron “Cam” Sholly has been in the driver’s seat of the movement. He took the job in August 2009 after the position had been open for three years.
The 444-mile parkway made headlines that year after two cyclists were killed in collisions with vehicles. Sholly made improved safety one of his top goals. He embraced Tupelo’s three-foot passing law for cyclists and enacted a policy for the entire Trace.
Two years later, the parkway hasn’t had any more bicycle fatalities.
“Knock on wood,” Sholly said. “It’s pretty hard to get super excited about two years.”
At the same time, cyclist usage has increased on the Trace, according to information gathered by the parkway.
Parkway vehicle fatalities also dropped 60 percent last year, but he downplayed the numbers, saying a collision on the Trace is easy, considering the traffic.
Last year, 13.8 million people used the Trace for hiking, cycling, sightseeing or commuting. Car counts in Tupelo are roughly 7,000 per day. The Jackson area section of the Trace averages 13,000 per day, he said.
“We have a lot going on,” he said.
Law enforcement and safety improvements will continue to be a part of the Trace, but Sholly said he wants to make progress on one of his original goals – interpretation.
“Now that the parkway is completed, our focus is making the parkway more like a park,” he said, during a recent interview at the Trace’s headquarters in Tupelo. “We’ve almost set up this unrealistic expectation that there is something to do every mile along the Trace.”
The emphasis, he said, is to build up and enhance key signature sites, such as the Meriwether Lewis site in Tennessee and Emerald Mound in Natchez.
Sholly also said the parkway and the Chickasaw Nation have restarted conversations about building a new heritage center in Tupelo. The talks are very preliminary, he emphasized.
“There’s a lot to do along the Natchez Trace corridor beyond just the scenic drive,” he said.
He cited the Trace’s partnership with the Natchez Trace Compact for improving perception and visitor experiences. The compact is a marketing group of convention and visitor bureaus along the Trace. The group promotes the communities “behind the trees.”
The parkway also is in the process of upgrading about 300 signs, at a cost of about $250,000. The new stone and wood signs can be seen at Highway 78 and in front of the parkway headquarters. The project should be largely done by the end of 2013, Sholly said.
Bathrooms are also on the to-do list, Sholly said. He suspects Tupelo drivers will be happy to hear that the parkway has plans to upgrade the bathroom facilities at Jeff Busby, which is on the way to Jackson. The project will be done in the next few years, depending on funding, he said.
But Sholly also is looking at the parkway on a bigger scale, trying to see what the challenges will be in a decade or so.
“One of the biggest threats to the Natchez Trace is degrading scenic viewsheds,” he said. “We support economic development, but we have to find the balance of protecting the parkway and its interests.”
The parkway is in the process of assessing the entire 444-mile park in 10-mile increments. The strategic plan grades each section based on number of trees, power lines and potential for future development, among other things.
And as the federal government continues to focus on budgets, Sholly said the parkway continues to look for ways to operate more efficiently. The parkway has drafted goals through 2015. The goals mirror the National Park Service’s goals, including teaching communities more about their heritage, improving close-to-home recreation and helping students understand the relevance of parks in their lives. The national goals are available at www.nps.gov/calltoaction.
While Sholly is the public face for the parkway, he credits the Trace’s partners and its staff for the changes and improvements. He also credits them for his ability to keep up with a park that spans three states. The parkway has about 150 to 170 employees, depending on the time of year.
“We have a very strong team,” he said. “It’s not about me. It’s about our team, our partners, our members of Congress.”
carlie.kollath@journalinc.com


FACTBOX
The Natchez Trace Parkway is the country’s eighth most-visited national park. It spans 444 miles and three states. Superintendent Cam Sholly oversees the parkway from the Tupelo headquarters. Here are some of the highlights from the past two years.
Safety improvements:
* Parkway fatalities in vehicles fell 60 percent in 2011.
* No bicycle fatalities in 2010 or 2011. Two cyclists were killed in 2009.
* Bought 20 new law enforcement patrol vehicles.
* Completing a $12 million radio communications system improvement for law enforcement and operations.
Exhibit and information improvements:
* Completed a $3.5 million site rehab of the Meriwether Lewis death and burial site in Tennessee.
* Updated billboards and added Quick Response codes for visitors with smartphones.
* Finished a new brochure with a new streamlined look.
* Published a brochure that highlights for the first time ever the nearly 100 miles of trails along the Trace.
* Finishing new exhibits for its information center in Ridgeland. The center is in the middle of a new 5-mile paved bike trail.
* Renewed conversations with the Chickasaw Nation to potentially build a heritage center in Tupelo.
* Bought land near Emerald Mound near Natchez to build an access road.
Visitor improvements:
* Spent more than $250,000 to buy new signs for the corridor. It’s in the process of replacing nearly 300 dilapidated signs.
* Built four new bathroom facilities. Jeff Busby, Pharr Mounds and Mount Locus are in the next round of bathrooms to be upgraded. The completion date is dependent on funding.
* Working with Tupelo on the design and construction of a new bridge to connect Coley Road and Barnes Crossing Road. National Park Service officials approved the final design this month. Construction is expected to begin later this year.
* Planted 15,000 trees.
* Mowed enough grass annually to circle the world at the equator.
* Added recycling options in Tupelo and Jackson.
Outreach highlights
* Partnered with 11 school districts, including Tupelo and Lee County, to teach students the history of the Trace. Officials want to partner with 10 more school systems in the next two years.
* Educated 10,000 students in 2011 about the Trace.
* Have ongoing dialogue with 3,000 private landowners adjacent to the parkway.