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A new video podcast emphasizing water safety for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is now available for viewing.  

The podcast, “Water Safety and Day Hiking,” is a four-minute video that showcases creeks, waterfalls and rivers in the park and provides tips on safety around water while hiking — particularly the hazards of waterfalls.

It is one of several video podcasts produced by the Great Smoky Mountains Association and is part of the Reward Yourself Hiking Challenge project, made possible in part by a grant from the Coca-Cola Foundation.

Check it out at

Fans of the elk herd in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park would be surprised to learn that until now, the elk’s existence here was merely an experiment — they theoretically could be rounded up and hauled away at any time.

But a decade after the first elk hoof hit the soil of Cataloochee Valley, the National Park  Service is ready to declare the elk project a success and designate the species as an “official” reintroduction.

The elk have grown from an initial 50 to an estimated 134 animals. Aside from the logistical nightmare of trying to find and remove them all, the park service would have been the target of public firestorm if it decided to do away with the elk at this point.

“I have never seen the ownership that people have shown toward these species,” said Kim Delozier, the Smokies’ lead wildlife biologist. “They are a large animal, a majestic animal and symbol of wilderness, and we tend to gravitate toward those things.”

The official designation as a reintroduced species means the elk, which were hunted to extinction in the Southern Appalachians in the 1800s, are back for good.

If their numbers keep growing, elk may one day roam widely across the mountains again. Kentucky and Tennessee have reintroduced elk as well, and Virginia announced just last month that it will follow suit.

“I would like to see elk throughout the Appalachian chain,” said Joe Treadway, a founding member of the Smokies chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and an early advocate for the reintroduction. “Will I see it in my lifetime? Maybe not, but I certainly hope my son and grandson will.”

The change in the elk’s status from an “experimental release” to an “official reintroduction” is rewarding, Treadway said. And it’s more than just semantics.

“It allows us to get together and develop a serious long-term management plan that to this point we have not had,” Treadway said.

Treadway, along with many in the Elk Foundation who supported the reintroduction, hope to hunt elk one day. Elk can never be hunted in the park, but Treadway hopes they will disperse into the national forests and state gamelands and that the population will grow enough to make hunting viable.

Under the new designation, elk that wander out of the park will be free to go their own way.

Before, the park would round elk up and bring them back if they roamed too far afield, into areas the park had declared early on as “no elk” zones. One elk was retrieved from Hot Springs. Another even made it to Glenville, a community near Cashiers, where it had taken up residence on a Christmas tree farm alongside a couple of domesticated reindeer.

Under the new plan, those elk would be left alone to make their home where they pleased.

Elk that wandered only a little bit outside the park had always been given a free pass unless the landowner complained. Delozier said the park rarely got complaints from neighboring property owners.

“Most people loved them. They think they are the greatest thing since sliced bread,” Delozier said.

Some wouldn’t let the park come on their property to retrieve an elk even if the park wanted to.

If a park neighbor did complain about a stray elk, however, park rangers would go get it. Under the new designation, the park will no longer do so as a matter of course.

“The change is now we will not take the lead. The state will take the lead on dealing with elk calls,” said Delozier.

Delozier said the park service will help the state Wildlife Commission with calls about nuisance elk if requested.

Exactly how the state will deal with the new species isn’t known. It has not yet developed a management plan for elk.

In anticipation of the park service backing away from oversight of the elk, the Wildlife Commission proposed a status change earlier this year that would make it legal for landowners to shoot an elk if it was causing property damage.

The Wildlife Commission said it didn’t have the time or resources to police elk run-ins once the park stopped doing so. But public outcry led the Wildlife Commission to drop the proposed change in status.

When elk were released in 2000, there were a few naysayers. Some feared they would bring diseases with them that could spread to deer or even cattle. Farmers worried elk would get into their crops. Some worried they would overpopulate. Others simply doubted the elk would make it.

So far, none of the fears have come to fruition, Delozier said.

Still others claimed the elk would be easy targets for poachers. But only two elk have been shot.

One was maliciously targeted inside the park by a poacher, who was ultimately caught. The other was killed at the hands of a dairy farmer in Jonathan Creek, a community bordering Cataloochee Valley. An elk had repeatedly come onto his farm and eaten the cattle’s food. He called the park and told them he would be shooting the elk.

One elk prediction that hasn’t come true, at least not yet, has proved disappointing. Park rangers hoped that elk would migrate to some of the high grassy balds where continual grazing would help keep them open. The Southern Appalachians were once home to numerous high grassy balds, but most have been overtaken by trees and bushes in recent decades. The park has lost several of its former grassy balds. Two that are still left — Andrews and Gregory balds — are mowed to keep the forest from encroaching.

Delozier said if the elk stumbled upon the balds, they would likely take up residence there and keep them maintained. But the elk population has not grown enough yet to disperse throughout the park.

Hunting elk

Right now, elk are designated a non-game animal by the state, so it is illegal to shoot one even outside the national park boundary.

In Kentucky — where 1,500 elk were released between 1997 and 2002 — the population now numbers close to 10,000. A limited number of elk hunting permits are given out each year through a lottery system. This year, 40,000 applied for one of only 850 elk tags. Each person who applies forks over a $10 fee that goes to the state wildlife agency.

In Tennessee, an auction for one of its elk hunting tags in 2009 went for $17,000 on eBay.

Tennessee released 200 elk between 2000 and 2008, and now has a population of around 400. It held a lottery for just five hunting tags last year — a token number given the still small population.

Virginia plans to release several hundred elk in three mountain counties in the southwest corner of the state next year.

Tennessee and Kentucky — and soon Virginia — all have larger herds than North Carolina since they brought in more animals to start with. Unlike the other three states, however, North Carolina has indefinitely halted the release of any more elk.

The rule was put in place by the N.C. Wildlife Commission because it feared an elk could be carrying chronic wasting disease, a deadly and contagious illness that can infect any hoofed animal, including deer or cattle.

That stopped the Smokies from bringing in additional elk, and the park’s herd has been hamstrung as a result. For a few years, the numbers seemed touch and go. Black bears were eating so many elk calves that the herd was barely reproducing enough to replace those that died from natural causes.

But the herd finally got over that hump, thanks to a little help from park rangers who took to moving the black bears out of Cataloochee Valley during calving season.

This year, no bears were moved, and the herd still saw roughly 25 calves survive.

It bothers advocates of the herd that additional releases can’t take place.

“You have to worry about the long-term genetic pool, with the lack of genetic diversity can they grow and prosper like they need to?” Treadway said.


Give your two-cents

The National Park Service is seeking public comment on the long-range plan for managing the elk herd in the Smokies. To comment, go to Deadline is Sept. 27.

To read a copy of the environmental report on how elk have adapted to the Smokies and their long-term outlook, go to the outdoors page at and click on this story.


Species comebacks in the Smokies

There have been several successful reintroductions in the Smokies, including river otter and peregrine falcons.

Only one has ever failed. A pack of red wolves released in Cades Cove were unable to make it, mostly due to competition from coyotes, which had filled the top predator niche once dominated by the wolves. Seven years after their release, the few wolves that had managed to hang on were removed and the project terminated.

Elk will now join the list of successful reintroductions in the park’s book.

“The reintroduction of the elk is another success story of increasing biodiversity in the park, like the peregrine falcon, as well as the continuing efforts to restore the brook trout,” said Holly Demuth, North Carolina director of Friends of the Smokies. “The viability of the coalescing elk herd shows that the park is a great refuge for wildlife.”

A visitor in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park got nipped on the foot by a bear after getting too close last week.

The visitor was on a high-traffic foot path at the entrance to the park right outside Gatlinburg, Tenn. In an effort to photograph the bear, the visitor allowed it to approach within inches. The bear bit the man’s foot and left a puncture wound so small that it did not require medical attention.

The bear will be euthanized, however. It’s park policy to euthanize a bear that injures a person for fear the bear may repeat the behavior. The bear had been hanging out around the trail that day, based on sightings by other visitors. Park rangers were unable to catch it that day, but went back again the next day and found it.

Given the bear’s willingness to approach humans, park rangers believe he had grown accustomed to being fed by park visitors, and even got reports from visitors who witnessed the bear being fed. Bears that develop a preference for human food can become more aggressive in their attempts to get it, which usually ends poorly for the bear.

It is illegal to approach wildlife, but in this case, the visitor technically was approached by the bear rather than approaching it.

“Our regulation is for individuals who willfully approach within 50 yards of a bear or elk,” said Nancy Gray, a spokesperson for the park. “That doesn’t apply if there is an encounter on the trail.”

Bears are usually hungry in the spring. They’ve depleted their winter fat stores, yet few foods are available yet. Bears are particularly hungry this year. They typically fatten up on acorns in the fall, but the acorn crop was scant last year. Many bears are underweight and in poor body condition, especially yearlings.

All visitors are advised to be even more diligent in keeping their distance and securing food.

In a record year for landslides, yet another one struck this week, this time along U.S. 441 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The slide occurred Monday near Newfound Gap, about a mile from the Tennessee state line. One lane of the road is open to traffic. The park hopes to reopen two lanes by commandeering a portion of an overlook parking area for a travel lane.

U.S. 441 between Cherokee and Gatlinburg is one of the only routes between North Carolina and Tennessee that is passable. Three other highways between the two states are closed due to rockslides of their own.

• Interstate 40 has been closed for five months now near the state line.

• U.S. 64, which runs between Murphy and Chattanooga, is also closed due to a rockslide.

• U.S. 129, which leads from Robbinsville to Maryville, Tenn., is also closed due to a rockslide.

There have been four other landslides in the region: a major one in Maggie Valley that forced an evacuation of several homes, one that took out a road and a lot in the Water Dance development in Jackson County, one that took out a road and a lot in the Wildflower development in Macon County, and one in Macon County that could be partly to blame for destabilizing a home foundation.

Moreover, there have been two more rockslides on the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The stunning beauty that surrounds U.S. 441 through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park outside Cherokee draws thousands of tourists each year who come to enjoy the cool mountain summers or marvel at the vivid fall foliage along the route.

But come winter, the crowds fall away and a layer of peace and quiet descends over the peaks and valleys — making this season the perfect time to enjoy a serene experience on the state’s newest Scenic Byway.

The 17-mile Smoky Mountain Scenic Byway begins at the foot of the Blue Ridge Parkway outside Cherokee and snakes north through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park until it hits the Tennessee border. Also known as Newfound Gap Road, the byway possesses an abundance of scenic views, historical spots and recreational opportunities to enjoy during the winter months.

The road begins next to the Oconaluftee Visitors Center, open year-round, which features a bookstore and exhibits dedicated to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. An on-duty park ranger is available here to provide information about the Park and the people who once lived there. Don’t miss the Mountain Farm Museum next door, comprised of pioneer buildings.

A half mile further down the road is Mingus Mill, an 1886 water turbine mill that for more than 50 years ground corn into meal and wheat for the Mingus community.

Past the mill, the byway starts its ascent, eventually climbing a total of about 3,000 feet. The lack of foliage on the trees only serves to enhance the spectacular mountain vistas along the drive, and clearer visibility during the winter months allows visitors to see a further distance than at any other time of year.

Take in the view about 11.5 miles up the road at the Webb Overlook, named for Sen. Charles Webb of North Carolina, a staunch supporter of the park’s establishment. Or journey another two miles up the road to the Oconaluftee Valley Overlook, which boasts spectacular views of the Oconaluftee River Valley below.

The Smoky Mountain Scenic Byway culminates at Newfound Gap, an evergreen spruce-fir forest that straddles the border of North Carolina and Tennessee at an elevation of 5,046 feet. It was here that President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially dedicated the park in 1940. The location is now the site of the Rockefeller Memorial, built to memorialize the support and $5 million donated by the Rockefeller family to help establish the park.

At Newfound Gap, a seven-mile spur road winding up to Clingmans Dome is closed in the winter, but provides a venue for walking and cross-country skiing. Hiking opportunities can also be found at several other points along the byway.

Fewer crowds and bare trees make winter the perfect season to admire the stunning backdrop of the Smoky Mountain Scenic Byway.

This article was written by Julia Merchant, a former reporter at the Smoky Mountain News, who now works as a communications officer for the N.C. Department of Transportation in Raleigh.


Through the park

While U.S. 441 through the Smokies isn’t the official detour around the I-40 rockslide, it could be the best bet depending on where you are heading in Tennessee.

Snow does fall in the Smokies during the winter and sometimes results in road closures. Visitors should check weather and road conditions prior to making the trip by calling the National Park Service hotline at 865.436.1200.

The Waynesville Public Art Commission recently issued a Call for Artists for its fourth public art project. The proposed art will celebrate the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and its historic relationship to Waynesville.

For many years an arched sign hung across Main Street declaring Waynesville the “Eastern Entrance to the Smokies.” Long-time residents will recall that the archway was near the intersection of Main and Depot Streets, near the former First National Bank. This is also the intersection where Franklin D. Roosevelt made his entrance into Waynesville while promoting the development of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1936.

The former bank site is now the location of a town “mini-park” which is scheduled for rehabilitation in 2010. Using funds that have been donated specifically for the improvement of the park, the town plans to revitalize the area by improving access, landscaping, lighting, and encouraging more usage of the mini-park. The existing rock perimeter walls will remain, but must be brought into proper code adherence by the installation of a railing along Depot Street. This provides an opportunity to meet functional needs in an aesthetic manner.

The Public Art Commission has requested that interested artists submit designs for a 69-foot railing that will incorporate artistic elements relating to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and its historical connection to Waynesville. The artist must reside in either North Carolina or Tennessee, the two states contiguous with the Park, and must submit a portfolio of past works for review. The Call for Artists and other public art information can be viewed on the Town’s website at

Three artists will be chosen from the applicants to make a presentation of their finalized plans to an advisory panel of 35-40 community and arts supporters. After reviewing comments of the panel, the Public Art Commission will decide on a finalist to receive the commission of $20,000.

The $20,000 commission will be raised from private sources, and the public is invited to make a donation to the Public Art Fund. Checks should be made payable to the Town of Waynesville Public Art Fund, and should be mailed to P.O. Box 1409, Waynesville, NC 28786 in care of Downtown Waynesville Association. Donations may be tax deductible.

The other works commissioned by the Public Art Commission include “Old Time Music,” the paver project in front of the new police station, and “Celebrating Folkmoot.”

The installation will coincide with the refurbishment of the park and should be completed by fall 2010. For more information, contact 828.627.0928.

Three Cherokee Middle School students starred in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park live field broadcast via the web to hundreds of schools across the nation last month.

The rest of Cherokee’s middle school students watched the virtual fieldtrip from the school auditorium. The students watching the video could call or e-mail questions to the park rangers to answer in real time.

The Electronic Field Trip gave middle school students an interactive opportunity to understand how plants and animals depend on one another as part of the same ecosystem. During the educational adventure, students learned how the variety of elevations, abundant rainfall and the presence of old growth forests give the park unusually high level of biodiversity, from black bears to microscopic waterbears, lichens, elk and lungless salamanders.

Southwestern Community College GEAR UP coordinated the three students’ involvement in the experience and the schoolwide viewing of the webcast.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to one of the most intact and comprehensive collections of early Americana, lining row after row, room upon room, of metal shelves, drawers and floor space in a sprawling, albeit hidden, storehouse.

A gander through the vast collection brings people of the past back to life. A knife worn on the belt of a farmer from sunrise to sunset, a dipper tipped to the mouth of thirsty children during a break from hoeing, quilt pieces painstakingly stitched by lamplight on winter nights, glass salt cellars proudly set at each place for Sunday dinner.

“Every usable item tells a story about how people lived, how they worked, how hard life could have been for them, as well as the ingenuity that went into building it. Sometimes I think, ‘How did anyone ever think to build something like this?’” said Dianne Flaugh, the park’s caretaker of the artifact collection.

Much of the collection is attributed to the work of two early park rangers who were savvy enough to scoop up items from the families living in the park at the time of its creation. The men, Hiram Wilburn and Charles Grossman, traveled around the countryside visiting the mountaineers being evacuated from their homes and farms to make way for the park.

They had one major advantage. The families simply couldn’t take everything with them. The park provided no moving assistance, posing a serious hardship. For families with several small children or elderly in their ranks, multiple wagon trips over the mountains to cart out possessions was simply not possible.

“It was a matter of people packing and deciding ‘Do I need this much stuff?’ So large things like looms or broken kettles were left behind,” said Flaugh.

The park’s collection continued to grow over the years.

“Even today people come to us and say ‘This was owned by grandmother. She grew up in the park. We want you to have it,’” Flaugh said.

But Grossman and Wilburn soon encountered a problem that would continue to plague the park for decades: where to put it all. The early historians stashed their treasure in any nook and cranny they could find. The artifacts continued to be shunted about every couple of decades, squirreled away in the attics and basements of park buildings, including a stint in the loft of Mingus Mill.

Through the collection’s many twists and turns, its varied caretakers adopted their own method of cataloguing the items. Park historians only recently wrestled the artifacts under a uniform system. Luckily, tags had largely kept up with the item they belonged to.

But the collection still has its share of renegade objects, with no owner or origin. Some are so veiled in obscurity, their long-ago use or purpose proves a guessing game, fueling a rousing game of “what in the Sam Hill is this?”

Flaugh finds one item in particular that always seems to lack a tag identifying its long-ago owner: moonshine stills.


No permanent home

By the early 1980s, the unwieldy collection had taken up residence in the damp and musty basement of the 1930s-era Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Kent Cave, a recent graduate of Appalachian studies, landed the task of assessing it. He spent day in and day out going through box after box of the rare antiques dating back to the park’s creation and beyond. While the hustle and bustle of park visitors went on overhead, Cave quietly pored over the relics, gingerly oiling leather gun holsters or removing rust from plow blades. He occasionally pieced the parts of spinning wheels or looms back together.

One particular restoration provided a little more excitement than he bargained for as an historian. While cleaning a muzzle-loader, he inserted a rod down the barrel only to have it stop before reaching the breach. The dicey job of disarming the loaded rifle fell to Cave. It ultimately involved irrigating the barrel with water while inserting a rod with screw tip down the barrel, boring into the bullet and lifting it out.

Cave had a knack for identifying often obscure items, like a tooth from a mechanized mowing machine that had accidentally found its way into a box of cobbler tools. When he occasionally got stumped, he sought out old-timers to help decipher what a certain object might be. Another trusty source was a century-old Sears and Roebuck catalog, as many of the items had been ordered from its pages long ago.

For three years, Cave bonded with the park’s collection, and by extension, the park’s former residents.

“You wonder about the people who used a particular coffee grinder or sausage grinder or cobbler’s bench or dough bowl, things that you know were in someone’s home and used on a daily basis,” Cave said. “You feel a personal kinship to people who gave up their homes and sacrificed for the establishment of the park. You feel a certain obligation to them to take care of their family heirlooms.”

To Cave, the collection provides a rare window on what life must have been like.

“There are an awful lot of hand tools and equipment you have to use by hand. Everything required some sweat and elbow grease,” said Cave, who is now the supervisor of visitor outreach.

Steve Kemp recently got to know the cultural repository during the making of a coffee table book by the Great Smoky Mountains Association. The book will provide a photographical tour of the otherwise hidden collection.

“It’s astonishing how people were so much more versatile in those days, how the average person could make so many things, from furniture for the house to a harness for the horse,” said Kemp, the director of interpretive products for the Association. “Another thing that struck me is how busy people were. It must have been seven days a week, 18 hours a day.”

The damp basement of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center was obviously a poor place to store the precious collection. So in 2000, the park managed to secure climate controlled storage space in Oak Ridge, Tenn., the home of a major federal complex that served as a nuclear research facility in WWII. The park was understandably reluctant to ship its collection to a remote site near Knoxville, but safeguarding the items seemed more important than having old baskets and butter churns close at hand. The park pays $27,000 every year in rent for the 4,000-square-feet of storage.


New visitor center on the horizon

To many, the second-fiddle status of the artifacts — witnessed by the park’s failure to build a proper storage facility inside the park — is an affront to those who sacrificed their land for the park and who donated items for the collection, and to the millions of visitors who would otherwise like to see them.

Shortly after the park was established, a master plan called for twin visitor centers at the main park entrances in Tennessee and North Carolina. In Tennessee, the visitor center would focus on natural history and in North Carolina on cultural heritage.

The one in North Carolina was never built, however. Instead, a small ranger station built by the Civilian Conservation Corps has sufficed.

Until now, that is.

Construction of a new $3 million visitor center at Oconaluftee got underway this year. It is being funded jointly by the Friends of the Smokies and the Great Smoky Mountains Association. Its primary focus will be cultural interpretation. At long last, some of the precious artifacts in the park’s collection can be viewed by the public.

The cultural heritage theme will dovetail with the Mountain Farm Museum already in place at the site, where visitors can see old farm buildings and demonstrations of early life. In keeping with the national park setting, the visitor center will be certified as an environmentally friendly building, with features like geothermal heating and cooling, recycled building materials and rain water collection for flushing toilets.

One of the most difficult things will be picking out which artifacts to put on display in the new visitor center. In the 7,000-square-foot center, about a third will be dedicated to a museum — not nearly enough to fit everything.

“Just like at the Smithsonian, only a tiny portion of what they have is displayed for the public,” said Bob Miller, park spokesperson.

To Cave, who spent may a lonely day bonding with the collection nearly 30 years ago, the new museum will provide a long overdue homecoming.

“This is a fulfillment of a dream and of a promise,” said Cave.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most studied national parks in the country. It consistently ranks in the top three for the number of research permits issued every year — a whopping 184 in 2008.

The influx of researchers to probe science in the Smokies provides valuable insight — even if not apparent at first. Such was the case with a researcher who spent years collecting fruit flies in the park. Fruit flies once found at a particular elevation have shifted higher up the mountain — most likely due to global warming that has sent cool climate species higher in search of the temperatures they’re used to.

“The researcher’s been doing this so long, he can actually document changes in distribution that could actually be related to climate change,” said Park Ranger Paul Super, the research coordinator for the Smokies who is stationed at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center in Haywood County. “You go from something that doesn’t sound that important to something that can help us better understand changes in the park.”

Much of the research in the park now has a global warming angle. A researcher from Minnesota ventured to the Smokies to study the adaptability of salamanders under rising temperatures — one being the red-cheeked salamander.

“It is one of our flagship species. It is found nowhere else in the world except the Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” Super said. “Can we predict where it is going to retreat to and can we protect those areas under climate change?”

The Smokies’ status as a research magnet is helped by the plethora of universities within a half-day drive. Another reason is the varied ecosystems available to researchers. Need craggy 6,000-foot peaks? No problem. Boggy low-lying wetlands? Got them, too.

The Smokies has also been a hotspot for researchers in the past decade because of the All Taxa Biological Inventory, a massive undertaking of taxonomists to document every living species in the park. So far, nearly 900 new species have been discovered in the process.

The number of researchers who have dabbled in the Smokies allows the park to tap into expertise across the globe. Super is on a first-name basis with researchers from the University of Gwelp in Canada who used the Smokies for cutting-edge research involving DNA bar-coding.

The relationship came in handy when a whippoorwill killed by a car windshield fell into Super’s hands last summer. Nocturnal birds like whippoorwills are in decline. The loss likely stems from a similar decline in large moth species suspected as their main food source, but no one knew for sure exactly what these birds ate.

So Super cut open the whippoorwill, pulled out the bits and pieces of moths from its stomach, and sent them off to the DNA experts in Canada. Using their new barcode technology, they identified the unrecognizable moth parts.

“Now we have some of the first definitive data on what whippoorwills eat,” Super said.

Part of Super’s job when issuing permits is weighing the loss of the plants and animals plucked from the park by researchers with the potential benefits to the park. As a haven for wild things, the park forbids taking even the most benign things from the park — catching fireflies to take home in a jar, picking flowers, even putting a pretty rock in your pocket is illegal. It’s part of being in an unaltered ecosystem.

So Super takes the requests seriously. Specimens that leave the park — from stacks of pressed ferns to slime molds in Petri dishes — mean little slices of the park have taken up residence in labs and universities all over the county.

“Federal law requires that anything collected in the park is still the property of the park service,” Super said.

When America tunes in to Ken Burns’ long-awaited documentary on the national parks next week, the hard-fought battle to save the Great Smoky Mountains from unrelenting timber barrons will play a major role in the epic series.

The story of the Smokies will unfold around two characters little-known outside the immediate region — yet whose passion for saving the Smokies stands in for the ideological struggle that played out across the country. That struggle ultimately led to a national park system Burns calls “America’s Best Idea.”

The two characters, Horace Kephart and George Masa, are certainly not the only ones who deserve credit for the park’s creation. But they are indeed the most compelling, said George Ellison, a naturalist and historian in Bryson City who consulted on the Smokies segment of the documentary. Ellison isn’t surprised by the filmmakers’ choice.

“It gave them a story line that was different. It gave them a hook they couldn’t resist,” Ellison said. “You could say they focus too much on Kephart and Masa, but it is effective. They did a good, honest job with it.”

Ellison was mailed an advance copy of the Smokies segment of the documentary earlier this summer.

Kephart, a reclusive writer, and Masa, a Japanese immigrant, met through their shared love of long sojourns through the high peaks of the Smokies. The two were kindred spirits who found solace, strength and inspiration in the mountains of their adopted home. They grieved together over the demise of the mountains at the hands of giant timber companies and became ringleaders in the campaign to protect the last stands of virgin forest in the Smoky Mountains.

“The Kephart-Masa story captivated them,” Ellison said.

They were exactly the type of characters the filmmakers were looking for, according to Susan Shumaker, a research who does legwork for documentaries by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan. Shumaker was dispatched to the Smokies by Duncan, the writer and co-producer behind the series.

When embarking on the project, Duncan knew the key to a successful documentary was to find compelling characters that shaped the national parks’ creation.

“It is really a human story,” Shumaker said. “Like anything in our history, it comes down to motivated people who are moving things forward. As humans, that interests us. We are drawn in to the stories.”

Masa and Kephart fit the bill perfectly.

“They cared so much about these places they put their lives on the line to protect them,” Shumaker said.

When Shumaker began her research assignment four years ago, Duncan vaguely knew about Kephart — essentially that he was an eccentric writer who immersed himself in the backwoods culture and wildness of the Smokies. They had no idea how rich the story line would ultimately be.

“Kephart emerged as this poetic voice in defense of the mountains and woods,” Shumaker said.

Masa, however, was completely unknown to the filmmakers. Masa, often referred to as the Ansel Adams of the Smokies, helped convince the nation of the need to protect the mountains through his stunning photographs. He was largely forgotten by history until a few years ago when an Asheville filmmaker Paul Bonesteel, made a feature length documentary about him. It aired statewide on public television, re-energizing an interest in Masa’s amazing body of photographic work. Masa has since been the subject of numerous exhibits and has been featured extensively in regional newspapers and magazines, especially during this year’s 75th anniversary of the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“The thing that I really liked about Masa particularly is you have this guy who is not even from this country but cares enough about it he wants to save it for many generations,” Shumaker said. “That underlines that the parks were created by all people and for all people, regardless of your ethnic or religious background or gender.”

Bonesteel provided the filmmakers extensive research on Masa and helped develop the storyline, and even served as a consultant by viewing an early rough cut of the segment.

“Ken and Dayton are both very serious about getting the history told correctly, so we bring in many historians and other people to view segments and give feedback, often three or four or five times during the process,” Shumaker said.

It’s quite possible that thanks to Bonesteel and Ellison — who were among the first to be contacted by Shumaker in her research for the documentary — the filmmakers were steered to the Kephart-Masa storyline.

One upside of the focus is that both men are from North Carolina, giving the Smokies’ segment in the epic series a decidedly North Carolina bent. Although three-fifths of the national park lies in North Carolina, park operations and headquarters are based in Tennessee, which has been successful in claiming the image of the Smokies as its own.

Proper due in the well-watched Ken Burns’ series could help rectify the false national perception that that the park lies almost wholly in Tennessee.

“The depiction of the park is normally a Tennessee story. This time it is more North Carolina,” Ellison said.

In addition to Bonesteel and Ellison, Shumaker also spent a day interviewing Duane Oliver, a former resident of the North Shore area in Swain County who has written numerous historical accounts of life there. When Shumaker traveled here, she brought a portable scanner and camped out in the basement archives at Smokies’ headquarters and pored over historical collections at Western Carolina University. George Frizzell, the head of special collections at WCU’s Hunter Library, provided key assistance in the research.

Duncan often does his own research, but this project was so big he needed help, Shumaker said.

When the series airs next week, Ellison will be proud to say he had played a small part of shaping the story line for the Smokies, even if that first phone call was all the way back in 2005.

“What surprised me was I asked when it was going to come out and he said 2009,” Ellison said.

That kind of lead time is needed to pull off the caliber of film people now expect from Burns. In fact, Shumaker can name the next several topics Burns is tackling, including Prohibition, the Roosevelts and the Dust Bowl.

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