North Carolina teen wins National Park Service award - InfoNews

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North Carolina teen wins National Park Service award

September 06, 2020 - 9:02 PM

ASHEVILLE, N.C. - At age 4, Virginia Ward could identify every tree in the woods near her home.

By age 12, Ward was rappelling off the highest cliffs in Western North Carolina, helping Blue Ridge Parkway plant ecologist Dr. Chris Ulrey in his important work to study rare plants.

Now 15, Ward, a sophomore at Nesbitt Discovery Academy who lives in Fairview, has won the prestigious 2019 Youth Award as part of the George and Helen Hartzog Awards for Outstanding Volunteer Service, an annual recognition of volunteer excellence in the National Park Service.

Ward was the only youth to receive the award. Considering there are 419 national parks in the country with some 279,000 volunteers, this was no small feat.

The parkway – the second most visited national park site in the country - had 1,380 volunteers last year.

“When I was 4, my mom would take me on walks in the woods, and she would pick up leaves from the ground and make me identify every single one,” Ward said of her mother, Carolyn Ward, who is the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation CEO.

“So, since I was young, I’ve just always loved plants, I’ve always loved the parkway, and interning and volunteering with Chris has been a great way to put those two things together,” Virginia Ward said.

She said she first met Ulrey at a foundation event and wound up “talking to him for probably an hour.” The two planned for Ward to become a parkway volunteer, known as VIPs, to assist Ulrey – the parkway’s lone botanist - with his massive surveying studies of the rare plants found on rocky crags and mountaintops along the parkway.

Ward has spent the past three summers – when she’s not horseback riding or teaching archery at Hickory Nut Gap Farm Camp – scouring those mountains, armed with a clipboard and heavy climbing gear, along with Ulrey and sometimes some other interns or volunteers.

“In my 21 years with the National Park Service, I have not encountered a young person that so inspired and filled me with hope about the future,” Ulrey said.

“Ward’s assistance has been a welcome gift to the rare plant program on the parkway, making it possible to complete the important monitoring work more safely and efficiently.”

Ward puts in a grown-up day’s work, eight-nine hours a day, five days a week for three weeks each summer, dangling off cliffs, scrambling over rough rocky crags, sweating or freezing in all kinds of mountain weather, to seek out some of the most endangered plants on the planet.

One is Geum radiatum, aka spreading avens, a delicate, yellow flower on high peaks like Roan Mountain and Devil’s Courthouse.

She measures the small flowers, which are federally and state endangered due to human encroachment as well as climate change, tags them and takes notes so that scientists can study their populations over time.

Ward also assists with measuring the threatened Heller’s blazing star, a type of aster that grow on rocky balds and mountain tops.

“There’s nothing about this I don’t enjoy,” said Ward, who wants to eventually work in the field of botany.

“I just love the fact that I’m doing something for this ecosystem and for this habitat. We have such genetic diversity and such plant diversity here, and I think it’s something that we really want to work to keep,” she said.

The Volunteers-in-Parks, or VIP program, was established under NPS Director George Hartzog 50 years ago for people to share their time and talents working toward the NPS mission.

Ward said she has never liked awards or recognition, but was honoured to receive this one.

“It just means a lot to me. It kind of means this is seen as something that’s good, which I think is what we really need right now. We really need for this work to be recognized,” she said.

“I just love the idea of how all these plants affect each other, and how they affect their environment and how that environment affects them.”

News from © The Associated Press, 2020
The Associated Press

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