Trailside Talk: The Wild and the Mild

Trailside Talk: The Wild and the Mild

Mike Hembree

By Mike Hembree

The cloak of green that covers the Great Smoky Mountains in summer blankets streams, wildflowers, trails, animals, hills, and hollows in some of the Southeast’s finest high country.

It also covers roadways, visitor centers, maintenance shops, parking lots, restrooms, vehicle barriers, stores, and administrative facilities.

The park, preserved as President Franklin Roosevelt said to “dedicate these mountains, streams, and forests to the service of the millions of American people,” has worked under a sometimes difficult dichotomy for most of its almost 90 years of existence. Like the rest of the national park system, GSMNP is charged with providing the general public with access to its wonders while also protecting them in perpetuity.

It is a difficult balance that can be confounding, confusing, and combustible.

Newfound Gap. Photo courtesy of GSMNP/flickr
Newfound Gap. Photo courtesy of GSMNP/flickr

There are swaths of the Smokies that are preserved as wilderness—backcountry that most park visitors know only through photographs or conversations with backpackers who venture into the park’s deepest woods. On the opposite end are the park’s centers for human activity—roads, campgrounds, visitor centers, and high-traffic trails where the presence of people can be overwhelming, particularly on summer days and during the seasonal changes that signal autumn’s approach.

One of the few crossroads where the two concepts meet is Newfound Gap, where the Appalachian Trail crosses Newfound Gap Road. Here bearded thru-hikers with months of wilderness behind them meet tourists in Buicks, two Smokies clienteles perfectly represented in one spot.

The topic of wilderness pops up occasionally across the Smokies timeline. There are those who say there will never be enough true wilderness in the nation’s most popular national park; others want more development—more roads, more camping, more parking—within park boundaries. Managing the gap between the two ideas is one of the tasks of park management and, in a broader sense, the National Park Service.

As a huge patch of green in an increasingly congested Eastern Seaboard, GSMNP has been seen as both a jewel of the wild with backcountry availability for a small but dedicated group, and as easy access to less strenuous recreational activities for millions. There have been extremes on both ends, from proposals to close all vehicular access to the park and return its entire acreage to “true” wilderness to ideas that have included a second across-the-park highway and huge theme parks sharing park borders.

The park’s founders likely would fall in the middle of those groups, although there was considerable push in the early years to open the park’s treasures to as many people as possible, with the value of tourist spending in adjacent communities no small incentive.

Preservation, conservation, and recreation always will fill different if occasionally similar pages in the story of the national parks. Even as the Smokies park anticipates its 100th anniversary, many park visitors will continue to enjoy the Smokies from the comfort of their vehicles or from convenient overlooks, a contrast to those who see the value of the park from star-filled night skies in the backcountry.

Both parties can be thankful for the people who made it possible.

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