A double-edged sword: Rising visitation in the Smokies brings challenge and reward
Lynda Doucett and her staff at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were pretty excited to move into the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center when it opened back in 2011. The staff on that side of the park had been stuffed into the tiny little “temporary” visitor center next door in the old administration building since 1948, so the brand new $3.5 million building was definitely going to be an upgrade.
But the 2011 move involved change beyond increased floor space and better interpretive displays. The more impressive building enticed more of the visitors driving by to stop in, and because the timing coincided with an overall surge of visitation in the park, there were more passerbys overall.
Between 2010 and 2011, traffic through the Oconaluftee Visitor Center jumped by 55,432 people — a 17 percent leap. In 2012, the first full year the new visitor center was open, traffic through its doors climbed another 42,268 to reach 433,257. By the end of November 2015, 441,855 people had come through the Oconaluftee Visitor Center that year, a level of use that makes the parking lot a rather zooish place during peak season.
“Frequently, they are parking all over the lawns, along the roads,” Doucett said. “They’re driving in circles not being able to find a parking space.”
Sometimes, it gets so crazy Doucett has to send her staff outside to direct traffic, and that’s no laughing matter, because while visitation has kept climbing, staffing levels have not. In fact, they’ve gone down.
When Doucett first came on board in 2002, she had four full-time positions under her. Now, she has two. Seasonal employees and interns help supplement the visitor center’s needs during the busier seasons, but it’s not the same as having permanent employees with institutional knowledge and understanding of the area to carry out the job. In the foreseeable future, there’s no sign of visitation slowing down or of staffing ramping up.
“We’re really close to that point that we are at capacity from our perspective,” Doucett said. “We do not have the ability to do any more than what we’re doing right now, and even then sometimes I don’t think we’re doing it as well as we can do it, because we’re trying to do too much.”
The park and its supporters
Doucett’s crew isn’t the only one dealing with the effects of increased visitation. Overall tourism to the Smokies has increased drastically over the past two years, with the year-to-date total as of the end of November already more than 12 percent greater than the total visitation for 2011. In 2014, visitation to the park topped 10 million for the first time since 2000, and the numbers are projected to stay high. In fact, the park is expecting the 2015 visitation total to be the largest in the park’s history.
“The last two years have just been amazing. I’m sure there’s no one thing you can point to that is the reason for the uptick, but it’s rather I think a collection of things that have caused it,” said Terry Maddox, who will retire as executive director of the Great Smoky Mountains Association this year after 26 years at the helm.
The collection of reasons includes ingredients such as low gas prices, a recovering economy and the park’s proximity to a number of population centers — it’s a lot easier to visit than the Grand Teton or Glacier national parks, for example. Outside the park, hotels, restaurants and shopping opportunities abound, so trip planning is a relatively easy task. The National Park Service has also begun its big media push to celebrate its 100th birthday in 2016, a campaign expected to continue prompting even more people to plan a Smokies vacation.
“All these things together are just bringing people like crazy,” Maddox said. “I think it’s clear the way this year will finish out, it will be probably the all-time high for visitation.”
So, is that a good thing or a bad thing?
“It’s always a double-edged sword,” said Maddox.
On the one hand, the national parks exist so that people can come enjoy them, witnessing unspoiled portraits of the nation’s most beautiful natural landmarks. From that standpoint, visitation is evidence that the National Park System is fulfilling its purpose.
“These are the country’s national parks,” Maddox said. “We want people to get away from their smartphones and tablets and actually get out there and see the real world, to experience it and see something of the culture and the history of the region.”
“There’s nothing like that visceral experience when you’re in the park and really appreciating it,” agreed Holly Demuth, North Carolina director for Friends of the Smokies, a nonprofit which, like the GSMA, helps fund park needs not met by the federal government.
There’s subjective value to that, but those priceless experiences can turn into hard dollars for the park. The park doesn’t charge an entrance fee, but visitors are the ones who stuff dollars into donation boxes or write checks to nonprofits serving the park once they leave.
“The upshot of increased visitation for us historically means that there is increased support for the park,” Demuth said.
For most national parks, that support comes organically. Other major national parks charge a per-car entrance fee, something like $25 or $30. The park gets to keep 80 percent of the proceeds, putting that money into seasonal positions and maintenance and anything else that needs doing.
That’s not the case in the Smokies. Before it was a national park, the area was privately held, home to family farms and small mountain communities. When the land was turned over to the federal government to become a national park in the 1930s, North Carolina, Tennessee and local communities paid to build U.S. 441 through what would become the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. When Tennessee turned its part of the road over to the federal government, it included a stipulation: nobody could ever be charged to use the road.
“The parks that are able to collect entrance fees certainly are able to provide a better source of long-term care,” said Dana Soehn, public affairs director for the park. “We’re fortunate to have groups like Friends of the Smokies and the Great Smoky Mountains Association. The support from our communities helps fill a little of that gap.”
The park bases its visitor counts on the assumption — tested out regularly for accuracy — that from June to September vehicles contain an average of 2.8 people and from October to May the average is 2.5. Even bumping that average a bit to say that each car has three people in it, if the Smokies charged $30 for each vehicle like Grand Canyon National Park — the next most-visited national park — it would have been allowed to keep $80.8 million for its budget in 2014, the last complete data year. Of course, that supposes that annual passes don’t make the per trip cost cheaper for repeat visitors and that the price doesn’t prevent some people from coming, but it’s a hugh number compared to the 2014 federal allocation of $18.5 million.
“You would like to think that our wise people in Washington realize the inequality of the budgets in the Smokies, as compared to other parks that get a nice federal budget and they get to keep all this fee money, and compensate the Smokies with a bigger budget, but sadly that’s not the case,” said Maddox. “They’ve never done that.”
So, the park is left to rely on its partners — principally, GSMA and Friends of the Smokies — to supplement its budget. And while increased visitation might not correlate as directly with fundraising as it would with entrance fee receipts, one does drive the other.
Demuth categorized Friends of the Smokies’ fundraising as being on a “steady increase,” estimating that by the year’s end the total will top $2.6 million and be about 10 percent greater than last year. By the end of 2016, Friends expects to surpass the $50 million mark for total funds raised in the organization’s history.
Earnings are on the rise for the GSMA, as well. Unlike Friends, which does its fundraising through events, campaigns and license plate sales, the Association operates more like a business, publishing and selling books in its retail shops throughout the park so the profits can be turned over to the Smokies. Currently, earnings sit around $2 million per year, with the total raised since Maddox started with the Association in 1990 reaching $34 million.
In fact, those privately raised funds from Friends and the GSMA are what paid for the $3.5 million Oconaluftee Visitor Center — no government funds used — a triumph that is brought up quite readily among park supporters when discussing the importance of nonprofits in keeping the park afloat.
“Places like Yellowstone and Grand Tetons — they could have never done it,” Doucett said. “I don’t see they’ve had the support to do that with just donated funds.”
That’s not the only project park partners have made possible. The GSMA started a small visitor center and bookstore at Clingman’s Dome, which attracts a steady stream of traffic and generates funds for the park through retail sales there. Friends of the Smokies funds pulley systems at backcountry sites throughout the park to prevent conflicts with bears. There’s the Trail Forever program, which recruits skilled workers to volunteer their time for rebuilding high-use trails. Treatment of trees affected by the hemlock wooly adelgid, funding for internship positions — the list goes on.
That work is made possible through the hard work of those involved in the organization, but also through the support flowing from parkside communities and former visitors.
“There seems to be a great affection for the Smokies,” Maddox said. “They come over and over again. It’s not like the western parks where you go once or twice in your life.”
Donations have not been the only thing to increase with visitation. The park has also attracted an increasing number of volunteers over the past couple of decades.
In 1995, for example, 653 park volunteers put in 51,960 hours of work. By 2005, that number had multiplied to 1,892 volunteers and 114,467 hours. Volunteer hours hit a peak of 161,835 in 2012, contributed by 3,016 volunteers, but have stayed high. In 2014, 2,575 volunteers put in 152,325 hours and in 2015 volunteer numbers rose slightly to 2,601, though hours dipped to 113,730. The figures don’t count work from Friends of the Smokies volunteers or from volunteers at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont.
Volunteers do everything from staffing visitor centers to directing traffic to instructing visitors in how to view elk safely. The park even has a program through which retired law enforcement officers help overloaded park staff by taking low-level calls, like requests for help with flat tires or blown-out radiators.
“We do depend heavily on working with our volunteers, but we also provide them training and uniforms and really accept them as an extension of our ranger staff, because we certainly couldn’t do it by ourselves,” Soehn said.
SEE ALSO: By the numbers
When donated dollars aren’t enough
But volunteers and donated dollars can’t completely satisfy the need created by increased visitation.
While visitation has risen by more than 681,000 between 2010 and 2015 — a 7.2 percent jump even without knowing December visitation numbers yet — the allocation from the federal budget has fallen by $2.3 million in adjusted 2015 dollars — an 11 percent drop — in the same time period.
It’s gotten to the point, Doucett said, where not only is there no money for extras, but there’s not even money for necessities, especially when it comes to staff positions.
“We’re trying to do more with either the same number or less,” Doucett said. “This year and next year for the (National Park Service) centennial I’m probably back up to seasonally what I was in the past, but I have fewer permanent positions here than I did in the past.”
One of the main tasks of someone involved with park interpretation should be putting together and conducting educational programming. According to visitor evaluations, the park is doing great meeting basic expectations such as keeping bathrooms clean and visitor help desks staffed, Doucett said, but time has become so tight where ranger programs are concerned that it sometimes seems downright impossible to carry them out.
“When you’re asking somebody to put together a program and do the research for the program and you’re giving them an hour a week, it’s not realistic,” she said, especially if said program involves a two-hour roundtrip drive to park headquarters in Tennessee, where the park’s research archives are housed.
That’s why there aren’t any programs at all this time of year. The visitor center is open a total 80.5 hours per week, so with just Doucett and her two staff members there to man it in the wintertime — no seasonals — there isn’t time in between their other responsibilities to do programming.
Ideally, more staff people would be great, but there’s no money in the federal budget for that, and it’s just not the kind of thing that groups like Friends of the Smokies and the GSMA fund.
“Visitors expect that should be a government service,” Doucett said. “They feel like their tax dollars should at least be paying for the services that are in the park, and I think they’re right.”
She likened it to a scenario in which a person walks into town hall to pay a water bill, only to be greeted by a volunteer worker. Wouldn’t you expect your town taxes to pay the salary to get that job done?
Demuth explained the policy of the nonprofit partners not paying for staff as a desire to keep them from becoming such a critical part of the park’s core function that if something crazy and unforeseen were to happen to the organization, the park itself would crumble.
That said, Demuth offered, increasingly Friends donations are “meeting more and more critical needs.”
A fragile future
While donations have been rising with park use, some people have concerns about whether support will continue indefinitely into the future. Who are the park’s primary users, and will the next generation of national park visitors continue to show the buy-in and support demonstrated over and over through the past decades?
Doucett worries about the answer, especially when she looks at the results of the park’s 2015 visitor use survey, a “snapshot-style” assessment of park use conducted over the course of one month during July.
According to this year’s survey, young people are far in the minority when it comes to park usage. Of those surveyed, just 11 percent were under the age of 40, with the 41-50 age bracket making up the biggest chunk of park visitors with 28 percent.
The question, Doucett said, is what those demographics portend for the next 100 years of the National Park Service.
“Congress brought us into this world. Congress can take us out of this world,” she said. “If we don’t have the support of the next generation and understanding on a nationwide basis of why these areas are important, we could easily disappear.”
Which brings the conversation back around to park programming and why, if visitation to the park is to continue increasing, education opportunities should as well, Doucett said.
“Unless we educate the younger kids about the fact that you can’t take this for granted, they’re not going to realize until it’s too late that you can’t take this for granted and this is something unique and special and amazing,” she said. “The foresight our ancestors had in saying, ‘This is a really incredible place that we need to make sure is still here for future generations’ — I don’t know that we in the last 50 years have done such a great job of conveying how fragile that can be.”
Dealing with carrying capacity
The fragility of the Smokies extends beyond legal status. The park is home to some of the most species-diverse forest on the planet, numerous endangered species, a herd of elk that’s been around for less than 15 years after centuries of extirpation — the park’s more than 800 square miles of area are a stronghold for ecological value.
Which raises questions about what implications increased visitation — and, with gas prices forecast to remain low and the Park Service’s marketing push surrounding its centennial ongoing, numbers are likely to keep rising — could have on the natural resources within park boundaries.
“I wish I had some solutions, because I really have thought about how do we deal with the carrying capacity,” Doucett said. “I don’t think we’ve really had the opportunity to sit down and say, ‘How many people can we take?’”
Yosemite National Park, where Doucett worked before coming to the Smokies, has had to wrestle with that very question, actually setting a cap on how many people are allowed into Yosemite Valley at one time in order to alleviate overcrowding issues. Doucett doesn’t think that’s the solution for the Smokies, but as the Park Service moves into its second century of existence, it might behoove park leaders to think about what might be a good approach to balance access with resource protection.
In addition to the question of resource protection is that of wilderness experience. If the trails are full of endless streams of tourists, is the magic of the park lost?
To Maddox, it just comes down to strategy.
“There’s over 800 miles of trails, but so many of the visitors only ever seem to want to hike on about six of them, so you get these thundering herds going up Alum Cave Trail or Laurel Falls or the Appalachian Trail,” he said.
An avid hiker, when he arrived in the Smokies he “learned quickly what trails to not walk on unless I wanted to be in a hiking experience that was almost like going to the mall.” There are lots of places in the park where you can go explore and scarcely see another soul for days, he said.
Where is the increase biggest?
It’s possible that visitors are catching on to that piece of wisdom. The fastest-growing way to enter the park is through its outlying areas, with visitation there increasing 70 percent between 2004 and 2014. Many of the outlying areas seeing increased visitation are in Tennessee — the Cherokee Orchard Road entrance leapt 683 percent from 2004 to 2014, the Greenbrier entrance saw 260 percent more visitation and visitation in the Cosby area increased 2.5 times during that time period.
But North Carolina also saw its share of growth. The Big Creek area in Haywood County saw a 63 percent increase in visitation, and the Deep Creek area in Swain County witnessed a 19.5 percent bump from 2004 to 2014. Visitation at Twentymile, a remote entrance in Graham County, nearly tripled, growing 273 percent.
The increased visitation is evident in Bryson City, according to Chamber of Commerce director Karen Wilmot.
“The problem with Bryson City right now is we have more (business) people wanting to come in than we actually have storefronts to give them,” Wilmot said. “We haven’t seen a turnover on Everett Street in something like two years, so that says a lot about the strength of our retail and our dining and the overall business we have here in Bryson City. This is the fullest we’ve ever been.”
Anyone visiting the park through either the Deep Creek or Road to Nowhere entrances has to drive right through Bryson City, so everyone from the tube rental businesses to the restaurants to the gas stations benefits.
“It really is amazing,” Wilmot said. “We’re scratching our heads, looking around like where are we going to expand next, what downtown corridor.”
Over in Haywood County, Anna Smathers of the Tourism Development Authority says that the Cataloochee elk still account for the biggest share of calls coming to the visitor centers and interest from travel writers. This year, the TDA put out a travel guide specifically designed to tell people where to go for their best chance at seeing elk and how to be safe when viewing them.
“That’s been really good for us,” Smathers said.
But, perhaps surprisingly, visitation to the Cataloochee area of the park — the spot largely recognized as the hub for elk sightings — has fallen in the past 10 years. Though it jumped dramatically in the years following the elk reintroduction — it climbed every year from 2000 to 2003, increasing from 65,432 people in 2000 to 214,000 in 2003 — visitation at that entrance slid back down in the years since, attracting only 87,879 visitors in the first 11 months of 2015.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the public is no longer interested in elk. Rather, it’s likely a reflection of the fact that the herd has grown and split into new herds since the initial reintroduction. You no longer have to go to remote Cataloochee to see an elk. They appear just as reliably in the fields next to Oconaluftee Visitor Center, a phenomenon that Doucett thinks is partially responsible for that entrance’s increase in visitation over the last few years — 200,000 more people used that entrance during the first 11 months of 2015 than during all of 2014 — and are regularly sighted in Cherokee and Maggie Valley. In fact, their appearance outside park boundaries has become so frequent that the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission is proposing adding a hunting season on elk in 2016.
Looking to the future
It’s hard to say just what the future will hold for the Smokies. Sure, numbers are on the rise for now and expected to keep climbing, but predictions are always just that — predictions. Educated guesses. Visitation climbed through the 90s, too, hitting the 10 million mark in 1999 with 10,283,598 visitors, but then numbers began to fall and kept doing so through the 2000s. Who’s to say for sure what the next 20 years will bring?
Also impossible to predict are future budgets — the park and its partners typically plan just two or three years at a time, Maddox said, because federal appropriations are so fickle — and what kind of impact upcoming state and federal policies might have. A prime example of that is air pollution, which has improved dramatically in recent years due to state and federal regulations surrounding emissions.
The purpose of the park, however, shouldn’t waver. It’s there to enjoy, to inspire, to teach — but also to protect.
“I don’t want to discourage people from coming, because I think it’s important and I think people need to see what an amazing place we have, and for those of us who live here how lucky we are to live in a place that has all these opportunities, but at the same time to recognize that with that amazing opportunity comes a great deal of responsibility,” Doucett said.
“We just need to figure out how to convey that responsibility.”
Points of entry
Entrances with the largest jump in visitation from 2004 to 2014:
• By percentage: Cherokee Orchard Road, 683 percent change; Twentymile, 273.3 percent change; Greenbrier, 260 percent change.
• By volume: Cherokee Orchard Road, 449,054; Wear Cove, 306,124; Greenbriar, 223,062
Entrances with the largest jump in visitation from 2014 to 2015 (first 11 months):
• By percentage: Foothills Parkway Northbound, 24.8 percent increase; Abrams Creek, 22.7 percent increase; Oconaluftee, 15.6 percent increase.
• By volume: Oconaluftee, 315,602; Gatlinburg, 246,740; Foothills Parkway Northbound, 164,983.
Source: National Park Service data
Smokies visitation trends in North Carolina
• Between 2000 and 2003, visitation in the Cataloochee area more than tripled following reintroduction of the elk. Since the peak of 214,000 visitors in 2003, it’s fallen 53 percent down to 101,165 in 2014 but is still much higher than in the pre-elk years.
• Though visitation at Oconaluftee is about the same as it was 10 years ago, it’s skyrocketed over the past year, increasing by 17.6 percent between the first 11 months of 2013 and the first 11 months of 2015.
• Visitation at Deep Creek has been increasing, shooting up 20 percent between 2004 and 2014. While visitation at Fontana Road is 2 percent more during the first 11 months of this year compared to the first 11 months of 2014, it’s almost one-quarter less than it was 10 years ago.
• The remote Twentymile entrance in Graham County has nearly tripled in the last 10 years but remained stagnant over the past two.
Source: National Park Service data