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Smokey Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Becoming a national park was not easy for the Smoky Mountains. Joining the National Park System took a lot of money and a lot of work by thousands of people. Establishing most of the older parks located in the western United States, such as Yellowstone, was fairly easy. Congress merely carved them out of lands already owned by the government-often places where no one wanted to live anyway. Getting park land in this area was a different story. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was owned by hundreds of small farmers and a handful of large timber and paper companies. The farmers did not want to leave their family homesteads, nor did the large corporations want to abandon huge forests of timber, many miles of railroad track, extensive systems of logging equipment, and whole villages of employee housing.


The idea started in the late 1890s. A few farsighted people began to talk about a public land preserve in the cool, healthful air of the southern Appalachians. A bill even entered the North Carolina Legislature to this effect, but failed. By the early 20th century, many more people in the North and South were pressuring Washington for some kind of public preserve, but they were in disagreement on whether it should be a national park or a national forest.

Smoky Mountains National Park outdoor activities
Enjoy fun family outdoor activities in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

There are important differences between national parks and national forests, and each concept had its cheering section. In a national forest, consumptive use of renewable resources is permitted under the multiple use management concepts. Because the forests were initially set aside for timber harvesting and grazing, the national forests were made a bureau in the Department of Agriculture.


In a national park, however, the scenery and resources are protected, and nature is allowed to run its course. The ultimate decision to establish a national park meant that the scenery, resources, and some of the native architecture would be protected for all people to enjoy into the infinite future.


The drive to create a national park became successful in the mid-1920s, with most of the hard working supporters based in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Asheville, North Carolina. The two groups had long been competitors over the location of the national park, but they finally began pulling together for a park in the heart of the Smoky Mountains, halfway between the two cities.


As a matter of past history and present interest, the park movement was directed not by the hardcore conservationists, backpackers, and trout fishermen, but motorists. The newly formed auto clubs, mostly branches of the AAA, were interested in good roads through beautiful scenery on which they could drive their shiny new cars.

In May, 1926, a bill was signed by President Calvin Coolidge that provided for the establishment of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park. This allowed the Department of the Interior to assume responsibility for administration and protection of a park in the Smoky Mountains as soon as 150,000 acres of land had been purchased. Since the government was not allowed to buy land for national park use, the former political boosters had to become fund raisers.


In the late 1920s, the Legislatures of Tennessee and North Carolina appropriated $2 million each for land purchases. Additional money was raised by individuals, private groups, and even school children who pledged their pennies. By 1928, a total of $5 million had been raised. Trouble was, the cost of the land had now doubled, so the campaign ground to a halt. The day was saved when the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial Fund donated $5 million, assuring the purchase of the remaining land.


But buying the land was difficult, even with the money in hand. There were 6,000 small farms, large tracts, and other miscellaneous parcels that had to be surveyed, appraised, dickered over, and sometimes condemned in court. The timber and paper companies had valuable equipment and standing inventory which required compensation.


Worse, in some ways, were the emotional losses to people who had to walk away from their homes. A later survey of the displaced people showed that about half took the money and ran and were glad to have it; while the other half expressed feelings from mild inconvenience to outright hostility. Some people were allowed to stay under lifetime leases, particularly if they were too old or too sick to move. Younger ones were granted leases on a short-term basis, if they wanted to try to stick it out. However, they could not cut timber, hunt and trap at will, or otherwise live as they always had.


The first Superintendent of the new park arrived in 1931, Major J. Ross Eakin. By 1934, the states of Tennessee and North Carolina had transferred deeds for 300,000 acres to the federal government. Congress thus authorized full development of public facilities.


Much of the early development of facilities and restoration of early settlers' buildings was done by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), an agency created during the Depression to provide work and wages for unemployed young men. The CCC worked from 1933 to 1942 when World War II finally shut the program down. Many of the trails, campgrounds, and the beautiful stone bridges and buildings that still stand today are examples of their work..


The final touch in the creation of the Smoky Mountain National Park was its formal dedication by President Franklin Roosevelt in September, 1940. He stood on and spoke from the Rockefeller Monument at Newfound Gap astride the Tennessee - North Carolina state line. That ceremony dedicated a sanctuary that is not a local park, a county park, or even a state park, but a national park for all the people of the country and the rest of the world to enjoy.

New visitor center at Oconaluftee opens March 2011

When it opens in late March 2011, a brand new visitor center at Oconaluftee in Great Smoky Mountains National Park will reward visitors with an array of informational resources and state-of-the-art multimedia educational displays. The project, funded solely through partnerships, will serve as a model for its earth-friendly design features. The center facilities are located on Newfound Gap near the Park's Cherokee, North Carolina, entrance. They will surround a plaza and feature a 6,300-square-foot Oconaluftee Visitor Center, a separate kiosk that will offer 24-hour orientation information and a backcountry permit station, and a public restroom building, including a family-style restroom, and drink machines.

The new center will present a trip planning orientation area, a cultural museum, and a Great Smoky Mountains Association bookstore. Park Rangers and volunteers will use a large topographical relief map as a centerpiece and a variety of wayfinding exhibits to orient visitors to the Park. To help them plan best for a day's excursion, a daily Park events schedule and real-time weather and road conditions will be available for review on flat screens. Visitors will be fully engaged by the thought-provoking displays, interactive exhibits, and the audio-visual media programs. The large-scale interpretive panels with life-size photo images will draw visitors attention to the rich human history of the Smokies from the earliest Native American period through the Park's creation and beyond, the primary theme of the exhibits. Park artifacts on display will include such items as a moonshine still and the chair that President Franklin D. Roosevelt occupied during the Park's dedication in 1940. The visitor center also accommodates a spacious Great Smoky Mountains Association bookstore, providing a treasure trove of the most excellent informational guides, maps, and books on the Park that includes a range of educational material for children naturalists, and a large selection of quality logo merchandise.

The building is an architectural model of environmental sustainability and the Park will be seeking certification under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). The $3 million construction costs of the Oconaluftee facilities was paid by Great Smoky Mountains Association and the museum exhibits totaling over $500,000 was financed by Friends of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Bear Safety

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the few places remaining in the eastern United States where black bears live in their wild, natural habitat. For many of our visitors the opportunity to view this famous icon is a treasured memory. It is however our responsibility to remind ourselves and our guests that even though these beautiful creatures may appear harmless they are indeed wild and can be dangerous. Willfully approaching within 50 yards (150 feet), or any distance that disturbs or displaces a bear, is illegal in the park. Violation of this federal regulation can result in fines and arrest. Use binoculars, telephoto lens, or a spotting scope to view the animals. For more information on black bears, http://www.nps.gov/grsm/naturescience/black-bears.htm

Diversity

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the largest protected land areas east of the Rocky Mountains. With over 500,000 acres of forest, the Smoky Mountains contain an enormous variety of plants and animals. In terms of biological diversity, a walk from mountain base to peak is often compared to the 2,000 mile hike on the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.

Cultural History

The Smoky Mountains also have a rich cultural history. Cherokee Indians moved into the Smoky Mountain National Park area about 1,000 years ago, and permanent white settlement began around 1800. Most families depended on farming for their livelihood. Life for many of these families changed with the coming of commercial logging operations around 1900 that stripped trees from three-quarters of what is now national park land. Established in 1934, Smoky Mountain National Park was created from more than 6,000 tracts of private and commercial land that were bought with money raised by public and private donations.

Biosphere Reserve

The Smoky Mountains National Park is designated as an International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations. The international system contains 324 reserves in 82 countries with the primary objectives of conserving genetic diversity and coordinating environmental education, research, and monitoring. The park is also a unit of the Southern Appalachian Man and Biosphere Reserve cluster. This membership enhances Smokey Mountain National park's commitment to cooperative efforts in environmental education, research, resource management, and public involvement. The park's designation as a World Heritage Site and a State Natural Heritage Area by Tennessee and North Carolina reinforces the value of its natural and cultural resources.


Visitation

Located within a two-day drive for ha lf of the nation's population, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has the highest visitation of all the national parks in the country. There are between eight and ten million visits to Smoky Mountains National Park annually. Educational programs offered by rangers, interpretive displays located at the visitor centers, and roadside exhibits explain the unique aspects of the park so that visitors may better understand the area. More importantly, these programs stress why it is crucial to preserve environments such as the Great Smoky Mountains.



Unique Features

The Smoky Mountains National Park's wide recognition as a unique sanctuary is well deserved when one considers just a few of its features:

Flora

During the Ice Age, the Smoky Mountains were a refuge for hundreds of plant and animal species retreating before the glaciers. These species found suitable living conditions in the upper elevations of the Smoky Mountains. Because the Smokey Mountains National park contains a variety of habitats, it is now home for some 1,500 species of vascular plants, 10% of which are considered rare, and well over 4,000 non-flowering plant species.

Trees

The Smoky Mountains National Park has more tree species than northern Europe and contains one of the largest blocks of virgin temperate deciduous forest in North America. Almost 95% of the Smokey Mountain's National Park is forested, and about 25% of that area has not been disturbed. Some trees attain record size in the Smoky Mountains and are over 20 feet in circumference.

Ecosystems

Because of the elevation and orientation of the Great Smoky Mountains, there is a wide variety of plant and animal communities. In a small distance, changes in altitude, temperature, and moisture create entirely different ecosystems.

Endemic Species

The Smoky Mountains provide the only habitat in the world for several plant and animal species, including Cain's reed-bent grass, Rugel's ragwort, and Jordan's (red-cheeked) salamander. Species new to the scientific community are found nearly every year, especially in the lesser-studied groups, such as the invertebrates.

Monitoring

To better manage its unique flora and fauna, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in cooperation with The Nature Conservancy, became the first national park in the country to set up a Natural Heritage Data Center. The Natural Heritage Program gives the park the ability to inventory and monitor its rare plants, animals, and ecosystems.

Fauna

At least 60 native mammals live in the Smoky Mountains, along with over 200 species of birds, many of which are here on a seasonal basis. There are 38 reptilian species, which include turtles, lizards, and snakes. Amphibian species number 40, and of that figure 27 are salamanders. This gives the Smoky Mountains the distinction of having the most diverse salamander population anywhere in the world. The Smoky Mountain National Park has about 58 species of fish, including several species of game fish. Numerous species of land snails, insects, and spiders are also found in the park.

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