Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Speech: 100th Anniversary Celebration of the National Parks Service at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Posted on August 25, 2016

Thanks to Superintendent Cash, Congressmen Roe and Norcross, and so many other distinguished people here, but especially to the employees and the volunteers who care for this park. I’m really impressed with Cassius Cash. Did you know he was a champion trumpet player when he was in high school? He went to the Governor’s School for the Arts and was one of four trumpet players selected for that, he’s been trumpeting ever since, whatever was important. And this idea of his to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the parks with a 100 mile hike, and especially to get the young people involved in it, is great. We spent an hour and a half this morning walking with some young people from this area, and that’s was great, too.

And I realize now that I was one of the luckiest guys in the world growing up in Maryville because you grow up next to the parks, so what do you do? You grow up in the park. You spend your weekends and special times there, and all the memories I have—Cash, he’s always talking about memories. My dad dropping me off at Newfound Gap on the day after Christmas when I was 15 with two other boys and three foot of snow and saying, “I’ll pick you up in Gatlinburg.” And he did later that afternoon.  Then, later that same year, we were in Spence Field, and we made an error in judgment. About 3 in the morning, I looked over and I thought one of my bunkmates was moving around, but it was a bear because we had left breakfast in our packs inside the tent, which is something you should never do and which I’ve never done since.


These memories are memories that stick with us forever, and I’m so glad to see the young people being involved in hiking in the park and making their own memories.


I’ll try to get my hundred miles in, and I may have to ask for a special exemption from the superintendent because I live in West Miller’s Cove, two miles from the park boundary. Dale Ditmanson reminded me that Miller’s Cove is authorized to be in the park. They ran out of money in the 1930’s—the park was supposed to go all the way up to the top of Chilhowee Mountain. I get up in the mornings and walk a couple of miles every morning over there, so, Mr. Superintendent, I may apply by the end of the year and say, “Does West Miller’s Cove count when adding up a hundred miles walking in the park? Because it’s authorized to be there even though it’s not there.”


Our national parks are the best idea, and it’s an even better idea to honor the employees. I think most people would be shocked to learn there are only 180 permanent employees here, about 200 part-time employees, and more than 2,500 volunteers.


These aren’t easy jobs. Take Dawn Brackins. She began working here in 1997 as a seasonal maintenance worker at Elkmont Campground, she now oversees the custodial needs of some of the busiest areas in the whole National Park Service like the Sugarland Visitor Center. She lives in Gatlinburg and spends a lot of her free time supporting a nonprofit called FRIENDS, which her daughter started to honor her granddaughter to help care for individuals with Down Syndrome.

Or Ryan Williamson is a wildlife technician who tracks and monitors bears that routinely get into non-wilderness areas—I guess that means your backyards and porches. His job is to capture the bear, examine it, tag it, and relocate it before the bear does anything that could harm anyone or himself or, presumably, Ryan. Those are the kinds of employees we’ve got here.


Another employee to whom I was introduced when I was governor in 1984 was Dwight McCarter from Townsend who most of you may know. I was here celebrating the 50th anniversary of the park, and spent a couple of days in the park hiking. They assigned a ranger to watch me, Dwight McCarter. Dwight has more stories than anybody, and many of them are true. He has searched for 120 lost people, he has tried to find every airplane that crashed in the park, and he’s traced the route of the Hawkins-Meigs Line that was supposed to establish the boundary between the Cherokees and the settlers. So Dwight took me to see Lem Ownby, who was the last man allowed to live in the park. Lem was 94 then, and he died the next year. He wouldn’t see most people, but he agreed to see me. So we went up there, and I didn’t know quite what to say to him. So I said, “Well, Lem, we haven’t had many governors from East Tennessee.” He said, “We haven’t had many that didn’t steal, either.” And then he said, “But, I ain’t heared nothin’ on you yet.”


I was sitting on our porch in West Miller’s Cove not long ago thinking about how hard it must’ve been for people like Lem Ownby to move out of the Great Smokies, and how lucky we are to have them, and what progress has been made over time. A ranger said that in 1934 when the park started, that there were a hundred black bears, there are 1,500 plus now. There were 315 turkeys in 1934—I can see a herd of them crossing the front yard now. There were 12 white-tailed deer in Tennessee and 6 in North Carolina in 1934. We didn’t have clean air laws back then—we do now—and anybody who lives around here can see the mountains a lot better than we could a few years ago. Now we have the Friends of the Smokies and the Great Smoky Mountain Association, who together have given more than $85 million to the park. We have a new collection center for things from people like Lem Ownby. It’s an exciting time for the park.


We hear a lot these days about what’s wrong with our country, but it’s not that hard to celebrate what’s right with it, and one of the very best ways is to do what we’re doing today: celebrating our country’s best idea, the National Park System, in the place that must be the very best idea, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, because so many people come to see us every year. Thanks to the employees and the volunteers who make it such a special place.