Posted on August 25, 2016
One hundred years ago, in 1916, Congress established the United States National Park Service. The documentarian Ken Burns has called it, “America’s best idea.”
If Burns is right, then the Great Smoky Mountains National Park must be “America’s very best idea” because each year it attracts nearly twice as many visitors than any other national park.
We feel a special sense of pride in our Smokies because, unlike Yellowstone and other western parks that were carved out of land already owned by the federal government, the people of Tennessee and North Carolina purchased the land and gave the Smokies to the United States to create the park.
Back then, a ranger wrote a memo identifying the wildlife he had found in this new park. There were 100 black bears. Today, there are about 1,500. Then, there were 315 wild turkeys. On some days now, I can see a couple of dozen strutting just outside our home in West Miller’s Cove two miles from the park boundary. In 1934, there were 12 whitetail deer in Tennessee and six in North Carolina. Today, they’re everywhere. Then, there were no river otters and no elk in the park, but they are both here today.
There are other signs of progress. At the 50th anniversary of the park in 1984, there was no law controlling acid rain and the Friends of the Smokies had not been founded. Today, acid rain laws are working, and the air is cleaner than it has been in a long time. On most days, instead of smog, you can see the blue haze about which the Cherokees sang. And the Friends of the Smokies, together with the Great Smoky Mountains Association, have contributed more than $85 million.
Just as remarkable as the wildlife are the stories of people who have lived in the Smokies and who gave up their homes so the rest of us could enjoy the national park.
Not long ago I was sitting on my back porch, looking at Chilhowee Mountain and trying to imagine how hard it would be to be told that I had to leave my home. That reminded me of the time in 1983 when I was governor, and I stopped to see Lem Ownby, the last person allowed to live in the park. He was then 94 and had been blind for 20 years.
A few years earlier, two Supreme Court justices had tried to see him, and he had refused. But, he allowed me to visit. I said, “Well, we haven’t had that many governors from this part of the state.” Lem said, “Well, we haven’t had many that didn’t steal either. But, I ain’t heard nothin’ on you, yet.”
In May, the park opened its new Collections Preservation Center, which will preserve artifacts, archival records and other important historical items that belonged to people like Lem Ownby.
On the 75th anniversary of the park in 2009, I played piano with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra in Cades Cove, a beautiful valley surrounded by 6,000-foot mountains. When we performed “Amazing Grace” for an audience of several thousand, the fiddles sounded like bagpipes that Scottish settlers played 200 years ago.
Looking ahead then, I said I hoped we would finish cleaning the air and become better students of the remarkable environmental diversity here. There are, after all, more different kinds of trees in the Smokies than in all of northern Europe. And I hoped there would be more private contributions and federal dollars to preserve and protect the Smokies.
It’s easy these days to hear about what is wrong with America. It’s also easy to see what is right. One good way to do that is to open your eyes and look at the 6,000-foot peaks, the streams and the coves in the 520,000 special acres that we call the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.