Editor's note: Great Smoky Mountains National Park lures about 9 million visitors a year to a 521,490-acre swath of rich, and dense, southern Appalachian forest. Keeping trails open, fulfilling all needs, and coping with all those visitors, is a heady challenge for the National Park Service. And that's where Friends of the Smokies fills a mighty role. In this installment of the Traveler's Essential Friends project, we introduce you to the Foundation and its mission in the park.
A huge, and hugely popular, park requires big ideas and substantial resources to make big improvements—much less put a dent in the list of projects deferred by declining federal budgets.
Some might see the roughly 9 million annual visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park as a great financial resource for the park. But by law the Park Service is prohibited from charging an entrance fee to those traveling the Newfound Gap Road,the main route across the park.
Fortunately, Friends of Great Smoky Mountains National Park (more often simply Friends of the Smokies) has had great success in making up at least some of the shortfall the park grapples with. Since 1993 the non-profit has raised more than $37 million to support an ongoing list of projects crafted by park staff.
From underwriting a half-million dollars of exhibits for the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee to supporting the elk in the park, the Friends never lacks for something to do. Each year the organization spends more than $1 million alone on research, conservation, and educational efforts that have touched virtually all aspects of the Smokies.
Pay attention as you motor through the park and you’ll see Friends of the Smokies specialty license plates in both North Carolina and Tennessee.
Combined plate sales brought the Friends $844,000 in 2011 alone, funds that are invested into the park.
“The license plates fund Parks as Classrooms where rangers develop programs,” says Holly Demuth, the group’s North Carolina director. “Students can take a field trip into the park and learn some of their social studies or science there. It’s fantastic.”
You might not notice it as you enjoy the Smokies, but dollars raised by the Friends often wind up underfoot. For many years after the Civilian Conservation Corps built the park’s most classic trails there was no trail maintenance at all. Now the park and Friends of the Smokies sponsor a volunteer trail coordinator and, thanks to $4 million in gifts since 2008, an endowed trail fund—Trails Forever—that employs a professional trail crew ... forever.
Backcountry crews benefit from 20 acres of land, and a 5-bedroom house that sat on it, that Friends of Smokies purchased and gave to the park. Now ridgerunners and crews overseen by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy have a base-camp when they come to work in the Smokies.
Those beautiful views you enjoy are helped by the Friends, too. The group helped start and fund the country’s largest program to eradicate the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, a pest deadly to the park’s hemlocks, so the park’s trails may forever pass beneath the tree’s inspiring feathery boughs.
Funding for these projects trickle in from a variety of areas. Nearly $1 million came to the group from memberships and special events, and in 2011 another $250,000 was raised by contributions left in the Friend’s donation boxes at visitor centers and elsewhere.
Still, the needs seem never-ending. The Trails Forever and Parks as Classrooms programs continue to grow and expand, and natural resource threats— such as the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid and climate-change impacts on fisheries and vegetation— can bring new needs overnight that Friends of Smokies will tackle. You can help.
Find and fill a donation box. Voluntary donations are a key funding source for the Friends, and the easy-to-find boxes are located at many spots. Drop in a $20, or more, and call it the park entrance fee you didn’t have to pay.
Become a Friend of the Smokies. Research shows that Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the nation’s number one park in generating economic impact, jobs, and income for area communities. Pay it forward! Join the Friends and enjoy reduced admission and other perks at local businesses (like Dollywood and Great Smoky Mountains Railroad)! Focus on our designated proceeds program and you can donate to a special project to benefit the park.
Gifts in Kind. Donations of money are important, whether through stocks and securities, a bequest from your will—or in cash. But gifts in kind are welcome too. Think about how your business can help and give the gift of goods (for fundraising events) or services (that reduce our costs).
Volunteer. Lend your muscles and sweat by getting involved with trail crews. It’s a great way to help the Friends help the park, and you’ll meet others equally passionate for the Smokies.
Coming Sunday: Insider Tips for enjoying Great Smoky Mountains National Park from Friends of the Smokies
Coming Next Wednesday: The Shenandoah National Park Trust