The Friends of the Smokies license plate has raised more than $1 million for projects on the N.C. side of the park since its debut in 1999. It was the first plate in the state to feature a colorful picture.
But today there’s a full line-up of specialty plates competing for bumpers. A hiker on the Appalachian Trail plate, a scenic road on the Blue Ridge Parkway and an elk plate that supports the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
“Those other designs sort of raised the standard,” said Ivey, director of the Friends of the Smokies on the N.C. side of the park. “We ended up with a lot more competition. We needed to stay out in front.”
But capturing the essence of the Smokies on a license plate isn’t an easy task, according to Micah McClure, a graphic designer at the Smoky Mountain News who designed the new plate.
“We had to ask what are the Smoky Mountains? What do they convey?” McClure said.
The image of a black bear and mountains quickly rose to the top of the pile.
“We tried to think thematically — mountains and wildlife being the two greatest draws when people think of the Smokies,” Ivey said. “When you go in the visitor center, the first thing people want to know is where are the bears. People love bears.”
The Smokies is home to the highest concentration of black bears in the United States. For many, the bear is synonymous with the Smokies.
“The bears are very, very popular in the park,” said Stephen W. Woody, the vice-chair of the Friends of the Smokies board. “The top thing people want to see when they come to the park is a black bear.”
It’s like the wolf of Yellowstone, the grizzly of Alaska, or the moose in the Minnesota Boundary Waters.
“The black bear has long been the symbol of the Smokies. People relate to the park through the bear,” said Nancy Gray, spokesperson for the park. “The park is one of the few places remaining in the eastern u.s. where black bears can live in the wild.”
The park has an estimated 1,600 black bears. Creation of the national park brought the bear back from near extinction in the region 80 years ago brought on by clear-cut logging and hunting.
“Its resurgence and the anticipation of seeing this remarkable animal in nature draws the interest of many visitors,” Gray said.
Ivey predicts the new plate will spur interest. There are nearly 10,000 Friends of the Smokies plates in North Carolina. Ivey noticed that growth in the plates seemed to be tapering off, with a modest 5 percent increase in the number of Smokies plates on the road last year.
“We felt like there was potential there and a new design could help jumpstart it and attract more supporters,” Ivey said.
Ivey seems to be right. The pink coloring and curly-cue letters on the old Smokies plate were a turn-off for many would-be supporters, including McClure, who plans to convert his tag this week.
“We’ve had very favorable reaction from everyone who’s seen it so far,” Ivey said. “I certainly hear from people who weren’t favorable to pink in their license plate, so I think aesthetics do matter. The new design might attract people who held back before.”
Another fan of the new plate — but for slightly different reasons — is Linda Cathey, who works in the Canton tag office.
“To be honest, we come from bear country,” said Cathey, who’s been looking forward to the new design. The bears are the team mascot of Pisgah High School in Canton. Besides that, “It is just a cool looking tag,” she added.
To gauge support for the new design, members of Friends of the Smokies were asked to vote on a prototype of a new plate design featuring a bear and the old plate. While some clearly had a strong affinity to the old plate design, the majority voted for a black bear plate.
“People like something new and different every now and then,” Woody said. “We felt it was time to update and refresh our plate.”
Those who like their old plate can either keep them, or turn them in for the new one.
While the new design will likely spur some plate sales based solely on the image itself, Woody said support for the park is still the driving motive for those who fork over the extra $30 a year for the specialty plate.
“I think there are some who like the aesthetics but I think the majority are people who are truly interested in the park,” Woody said. “It is the most popular national park in America and it’s our park. People want to support it.”