By Frances Figart, Creative Services Director
Summer is here! And as temperatures and humidity rise, returning visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park are tempted to dip their toes—and more—in the cool waters of the park’s 2,900 miles of clear mountain streams. Many do not yet know that doing so can put wildlife at risk.
Ranger Julianne Geleynse is trying to change that. Raised near lakes and streams in Minnesota, Geleynse was “an outdoor kid” who spent her free time fishing, wandering in the woods, and discovering the natural world, eager to look up each new discovery in the library.
“Growing up in a land full of lakes has pretty much made me dependent on water features to feel at home,” she says. “I never knew national parks existed until I was 23 and started exploring them. When I saw that a career existed where I could share my passion for the natural world, I did everything I could to get a job in the National Park Service.”
Now an education park ranger in the Smokies with a B.S. in Biology and M.S in Biological Sciences from Clemson University, Geleynse is living her dream. In spring and fall she works with students of all ages, introducing them to the natural world and the science behind GSMNP. Her summers are spent running a high school internship program that introduces youth to park service career choices.
Over the winter months, she develops educational materials with Great Smoky Mountains Association and other park partners to help the public understand issues that affect the park. Among her personal passions is the Don't Move Rocks campaign.
The Smokies’ streams are fed by tens of thousands of springs, constantly trickling water from crevices in the ancient mountain range. Residing beneath the surface is everything from native brook trout to 11 species of crayfish to two species of giant salamander.
“This time of year, we start to see damage in our creeks and streams caused by the creation of cairns, channels and rock dams,” says Geleynse. “Many salamander and fish species lay their eggs under rocks of various sizes. The movement or removal of these rocks is similar to someone rearranging your furniture or completely moving your house. It disrupts breeding behavior and can completely destroy the nest and eggs of both salamanders and fish.”
In 2017, University of Tennessee researchers started to notice a sharp decline in population of the Eastern hellbender, one species of giant salamander that lives in the park. Geleynse set to work developing educational materials about the threats rock moving poses to aquatic wildlife.
Living in a stream in the Smokies is already hard for aquatic life. Natural flooding and drought events occur seasonally, changing the landscape and animals’ habitat. It’s easy to think that making one rock dam or cairn can’t do much harm. However, with millions of visitors recreating in park streams, the damage is visible.
“Eastern hellbenders have been found dead between the rocks of dams, their nests destroyed at a time of year when flooding does not normally occur,” says Geleynse. “A better way to pass the time is to bring a snorkel and some goggles and explore with the exciting creatures that live below the surface. Who knows, you may even spot a snot otter yourself.”
Last year 12.5 million people visited the Smokies to escape the developed world—yet rock cairns, dams and channels are evidence of human disturbance, changing the park’s wilderness character. And it’s not just parks that are affected. Moving rocks in any stream can threaten the creatures who make it their home.
“When we started the campaign, most people had no idea that moving rocks killed salamanders, fish and other aquatic life,” Geleynse says. “But now that they have that knowledge, they're starting to change their behavior and not move rocks.”