Trailside Talk: Save Our Smokies

Trailside Talk: Save Our Smokies

Will Kuhn

I was on a hiking trip with a group of kids last year when we stopped about halfway up a mountain to take a break on a group of large rocks.

As I sat down, I noticed that someone had left a soda bottle near the bottom of one of the rocks, and I took the opportunity to explain to the kids what a wrong decision someone had made. “Always take your trash out with you,” I said.

We reached the top of the mountain, basked in the wind and sunshine for a while, and prepared to hike down. A hundred yards or so down the trail, I noticed that one of the younger hikers no longer had her bottle of water, and I asked where it was. Despite the excellence and intensity of my earlier lecture (probably it was actually somewhat boring), she had left it at the summit. We reversed course, returned to the scene of the “crime,” and dropped the empty bottle into her backpack.

A crew of volunteers gathers at dawn at Look Rock in the Smokies. Photo courtesy of Jerry and Darlene Willis.
A crew of volunteers gathers at dawn at Look Rock in the Smokies. Photo courtesy of Jerry and Darlene Willis.

Lesson learned, I hope.

An alarming amount of trash is left in the Smokies—and many other national parks. Stand beside virtually any busy Smokies road, and you’re likely to spot someone tossing a cup or bottle—or worse, a very used diaper—from a car window.

This is troubling on a number of levels, particularly for those of us who heartily embrace the National Park System and shudder at the idea that many visitors seemingly aren’t concerned about what they do with their trash in some of the most beautiful parts of the nation.

Fortunately for them—and for us—there are dedicated people fighting the battle against trash in the Smokies. Over the past six years, more than 26,000 volunteers have participated in the Parkwide Litter Patrol Program, picking up and hauling tons of trash—from gum wrappers to clothes dryers—from the park.

Among the volunteers are members of Save Our Smokies (SOS), a group that schedules cleanup days in various sections of the park on a regular basis. SOS was started by the husband-and-wife team Jerry and Darlene Willis in October 2020 and has expanded to include more than 130 volunteers who pick up others’ trash regularly in the park.

Jerry and Darlene Willis run Save Our Smokies in coordination with the park’s Litter Patrol volunteer program. Photo courtesy of Jerry and Darlene Willis.
Jerry and Darlene Willis run Save Our Smokies in coordination with the park’s Litter Patrol volunteer program. Photo courtesy of Jerry and Darlene Willis.

Here’s a number that is both remarkable and depressing—SOS removed 10,133 pounds of trash from Smokies roads, parking areas, and trails this year.

It’s a sad reality, said Jerry Willis, a health care administrator in Knoxville. “It’s just a lack of integrity, largely,” he said. “It’s that mentality that it doesn’t really matter. One of the things that bugs me personally is that people blame all of it on tourists. We find things that are definitely not left by tourists: for example, a queen-size mattress and a dryer. We found 30 tires in one day. A lot of it, unfortunately, is local.”

The Willises have hiked all 900 miles of trails in the park and have a deep and protective love for all things Smokies. “Both of us had family living in the Smokies before the park,” Jerry said. “It’s a special place to us. We’re trying to get everybody of a like mind to get out there and make it better. It’s great to finish up and look back on a section of park and it’s clean again.”

For more information, contact SOS at saveoursmokies.org.

Smokies LIVE

SOS outfits each volunteer with gloves, a vest, a grabber device, and trash bags—a cost of about $50, which often is paid by the volunteer.

Mike Hembree is a veteran journalist and the author of 14 books. He has visited 26 national parks and hopes to add many more to that list.

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