The Associated Press - DUNCAN MANSFIELD
Great Smoky Mountains National Park can be the engine to propel new eco-friendly tourism for gateway communities in Tennessee and North Carolina, according to participants at a regional conference on "sustainable tourism."
That's both an opportunity and a challenge for such communities as Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Cherokee, N.C., and for the country's most-visited national park itself.
A National Geographic Traveler survey of "sustainable destinations" ranked the Smokies second to last among 55 national parks in the U.S. and Canada in 2005, citing "terrible traffic, vista-choking haze, invasive species and crowded trails." Some 9.2 million visitors come to the Smokies annually.
Even when survey respondents liked the 520,000-acre preserve - one of the most biologically diverse on the planet - they didn't like the towns around it, terming them "distasteful tourist schlock" and "gloried amusement parks."
U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne told a news conference before addressing the conference Monday that record new federal spending has been authorized for the national parks, including the Smokies, that will help with routine operations and special projects.
That includes a $1.5 million boost for the Smokies that will provide, beyond pay increases and the like, some 55 new seasonal rangers. In addition, new federal money to match private donations will provide $340,000 to the Smokies for exhibits for a new visitors center in Cherokee, preservation funds for historic cottages in the Elkmont district and podcasts aimed at tech-savvy young people, some of the first in the park system.
"Americans love their parks. They realize there are certain things that governments should do - (such as) provide for ongoing maintenance to the operations. That is the expectation," Kempthrone said. "But they realize that government cannot do all things. And so here is this opportunity where the government is saying, 'We would like to partner with our citizens.' "
The special matching projects are geared to the national park system's 100th anniversary in 2016, but Smokies supporters also are channeling their efforts toward the Smokies' 75th anniversary in 2009.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who lives near the Smokies, said the conference "reminds us that in the gateway communities of the Great Smokies, a good way to celebrate the 75th anniversary is to clean up our front yard and celebrate our heritage, because it needs a little help."
Alexander has promoted legislation to reduce air pollution that impacts the park and helped broker the environmentally friendly deal to compensate Swain County, N.C., for the "Road to Nowhere" project in the Smokies rather than finish building it.
But more needs to be done and it will require cooperation at all levels - federal, state and particularly local, Alexander said.
Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen agreed, both to benefit tourist economies and fragile environmental resources.
"When it comes to such far-reaching and vital issues as conservation and sustainability, it is really through strong partnerships that we are going to be able to make a real and lasting and positive change," said Bredesen, adding that he hoped the conference would provide ideas for eco-tourism promotions statewide.