Category: Writing the New South
Published: 13 May 2009
On a sunny April day, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park kicked off its seventy-fifth anniversary celebration. Over two hundred dignitaries came to Clingmans Dome at this invitation—only event billed as the Governors’ Proclamation. I had written a proclamation for the Carolina Mountain Club (CMC), a sort of birthday card for the park, and that’s how I found myself on top of old Smoky among all that top brass.
I wore hiking boots and a sun hat and carried a fleece jacket in my pack because Clingmans Dome is over six thousand feet high. Most men wore suits and ties, and women had on high heels; they were lucky that the weather was so mild. I had never seen park rangers in their dress uniforms—fitted green wool jackets over gray shirts and green ties and their Smoky the Bear hats. They must have been sweating.
Superintendent Dale Ditmanson was the master of ceremonies. Speech after speech recounted the history of the Smokies and the sacrifices that were made by those who had to leave their homes to make way for the park. Unlike national parks out West where the parks were carved out of federal land, the Smokies were populated by thousands of individual owners. Many families were just as happy to sell their land to the park during the depression, but not everyone wanted to move.
Superintendent Ditmanson said, “Many now realize, however, the park saved rather than destroyed their heritage.” Ditmanson recalled that feeling being expressed at a recent Cataloochee Reunion, an annual gathering of hundreds of people with family ties to Cataloochee Valley, on the eastern end of the park.
“We can’t trust other people’s grandchildren,” Ditmanson quoted one of the speakers. “Everybody laughed, but people got it. Somebody’s grandchildren would have sold out and it wouldn’t be the beautiful place it is today.”
Principal Chief Michell Hicks of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians pointed out that the park protects Cherokee lands from development. Gov. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee said it’s more difficult to preserve land now than seventy-five years ago.
But where was my governor? North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue didn’t attend, which caused great dismay among North Carolinians. Newspapers and blogs from western North Carolina were very upset that the governor wasn’t there. She was quoted as saying that “it was so far out of the way” but out of the way from what? To me, the Smokies are my destination almost every week. Besides there’s much more of North Carolina west of the park and she is the governor for the whole state.
In the North Carolina mountains, the Smokies, Blue Ridge Parkway, and national forests are more than just pretty background scenery. All this federal land shapes our culture by attracting tourists and jobs and containing private development. The North Carolina side of the park has more acres of land and more miles of hiking trails than Tennessee. But ask anyone outside those two states about the park, and they'll tell you that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is in Tennessee. However the governor’s absence didn’t take away from this momentous occasion.
A large tent had been set up in the parking lot at Clingmans Dome. Inside, various groups had hung framed proclamations on a large board. Most proclamations, especially from state and local legislatures, were peppered with “whereas” and official gold seals.
I presented the Carolina Mountain Club proclamation to Bob Miller, the Smokies public affairs officer. CMC, established in 1923, had famous members who advocated for the park, including Horace Kephart and George Masa. Horace Kephart, best known for Our Southern Highlanders, wrote many articles in favor of preserving the Smokies. George Masa’s exquisite photographs illustrated the value of the land that needed to be saved. Neither man lived to see the official creation of the park in 1934. In their honor, peaks in the park bear their names: Mount Kephart and Masa Knob.
If Kephart and Masa came back to the Smokies now, would they approve of the most visited national park in the country? They would be surprised at the newly reintroduced otter and elk, which had been extinct from the area in their lifetime. Would they approve of the visitors centers, parking lots, and backcountry shelters? I wonder if they would hike the eight hundred miles of trails, many formed by logging roads and railroad lines. I’ve hiked all the trails in the Smokies and every trail had a history.
What hopes do we have for the park’s future? Superintendent Ditmanson mused that in two hundred years, he would like to see healthy hemlocks, restored spruce and Fraser firs, and the return of the American chestnut. I would like to see fewer visitors on the roads and visitors centers and more hikers on the trail.
Happy seventy-fifth anniversary, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’ll be there for your one hundredth, hopefully still with my boots on.