A page from the past: Smokies’ artifacts tender rare glimpse into life before the park

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.

A sanctuary for scientists: Smokies’ slopes seen as frontier in global warming research

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.

Documentary tells captivating tale about the creation of GSMNP

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.

Old timers recall Roosevelt’s trip to the Smokies

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park staged a reenactment this week of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s dedication of the newly created park nearly 70 years ago.

Roosevelt’s trip to the region in 1940 is still remembered by many. Throngs of people lined the main streets of Waynesville, Bryson City and Cherokee for a chance to see the heroic President roll by en route to Newfound Gap, where he would speak at a dedication ceremony for the new park.

“President Roosevelt was next to God,” said Henry Foy, who watched from the side of Main Street in Waynesville. “He was in the backseat and held up his hat and waved it out both sides.”

As is often the case with big milestones, anyone alive at the time seems to remember where they were when Roosevelt’s entourage drove through town.

“That was the biggest day of my life,” said J.C. Freeman, 81, who watched from the roadside in Bryson City. “He was in an open topped car. They roped the roads off. I was holding the rope as close as I could get. I thought that was one of the greatest things that could happen to a boy.”

Joyce Patton of Canton, just 7 years old at the time, was most excited at the prospect of seeing Roosevelt’s black Scottish Terrier pup named Fala.

“[Roosevelt] was waving with his cigarette in the holder. I saw right away that he didn’t have the dog,” Patton said, recalling her disappointment. Patton’s parents, who were park supporters, made the long car trip up to Newfound Gap to hear his speech. They were seated near the front, close enough to see Roosevelt getting out of his car into a wheelchair.

“At that time nobody knew he was paralyzed. They lined the ramp going up to the lectern with Secret Service and Park Rangers so most people couldn’t see him in the wheelchair,” Patton recounted.

While the park was officially created in 1934, Roosevelt’s dedication happened six years later on Sept. 2, 1940. By then, the Civilian Conservation Corps had carved trails, campgrounds and roads into the park, including the overlook at Newfound Gap. There Roosevelt stood with one foot in each state while delivering his speech in front of the newly finished Rockefeller Memorial, erected as an homage to the family that donated $5 million for the park’s creation.

Commodore Casada, 99, caught a ride up the mountain from Bryson City to witness the big event. Although like many, his interest was in seeing Roosevelt — not honoring a park he resented.

“I hadn’t accepted the park yet. It just always seemed to me like somebody was taking something that was mine,” said Casada, who grew up on land seized for the park. Although he added, “Now I’m glad we gave it.”

Roosevelt’s speech was laden with references to the brewing war in Europe, calling for the need to protect America’s great landscapes and natural history as well as the nation’s freedom.

The road to a cash settlement


Forney Creek Township wants a road leading from Bryson City to Deals Gap on the Tennessee state line. It is the height of the timber boom, and the road would improve access to Knoxville. The community took out bonds totaling $400,000 to pay for the road.


The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is officially created.


Forney Creek Township has yet to pay a single cent on the road bonds it took out nearly 20 years prior. With interest, the amount now came to $694,000. The county assumes the outstanding debt. It refinances the bond for $1.3 million, which also includes money for a new school.


President Roosevelt authorizes federal funding to build Fontana Dam on the Little Tennessee River. The hydropower is needed by Alcoa, which is producing sheets of aluminum for wartime airplanes. Tennessee Valley Authority begins land acquisition.


The federal government wrestles with what to do about 216 families living in a 44,000-acre territory that will be cut off when the lake floods the only road in or out of the area. With a war on, the government doesn’t have the money or time to build a new road above the high water mark. But leaving the people isolated on the far side of the lake isn’t an option either.


The 44,000 acres is added to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the people evacuated, along with those in the direct path of rising water. An agreement is signed between Swain County commissioners, the Governor of North Carolina, Tennessee Valley Authority and the Department of Interior that promises to build a new road — provided Congress appropriates the funds — along the north shore. Road is to be part of an “Around the Park” road network, to commence as soon after WWII as Congress appropriates funds.


Six landowners who didn’t want to give up their land in the North Shore area lose a lawsuit against the Tennessee Valley Authority. They wanted to keep their land, since the government was supposedly rebuilding the road, and saw no need for it to be ceded to the park service.

They won twice in lower courts, but it was appealed to the Supreme Court, which denied the families’ claim.


Park service builds 0.9 mile of the promised road on the Fontana Dam side.


State of North Carolina constructs a road from Bryson City to the national park boundary, laying the groundwork for the park to pick up construction.


Congressman Roy A. Taylor secured $8 million for construction of the North Shore Road. Park service commences road construction where the state left off.


National Park Service issues a report stating “it appears to be in the public interest to seriously reconsider the plan” to build the road.


National Park Service proposes a trans-mountain road from Bryson City to Townsend, Tenn., in lieu of completing a road along the lake shore.


A public hearing is held in Bryson City that pits advocates of Wilderness Area designation for the park with locals who want their road.


Construction on the road stops after seven miles. The park service has used up the $8 million and is out of money. The prospects for more money seem slim due to environmental opposition.


Contingency from Swain County makes a trip to Raleigh to visit N.C. Attorney General Robert Morgan. They ask Morgan for the state’s help suing the federal government to resolve the 1943 Agreement. They learn they have no grounds for a lawsuit, due to a hold harmless clause in the agreement.


Swain County finally pays off the Forney Creek Road debt from the 1920s for a road that’s long since been flooded by the creation of Lake Fontana.


North Carolina Gov. James Holshouser attempts to craft a compromise to provide a cash settlement for Swain County in lieu of the road. At a later meeting in Washington, D.C., a Swain County attorney offers a starting figure of $25 million, but the National Park Service representative refuses to even negotiate and ends the meeting.


A public hearing is held in Bryson City, again on the issue of wilderness designation for the park.


Secretary of the Department of the Interior Cecil Andrus visits Swain County at the request of local leaders clamoring to get the score settled. They hire a bus and pile in with Andrus on a tour of the county, from Calf Pen Gap overlooking the lake to lunch at the Deep Creek pavilion in the park. After returning to Washington, Andrus appoints an ad hoc committee “to look into the controversies surrounding the agreement and recommend possible solutions.”

Nov. 28, 1980

Andrus writes a letter to the Swain County commissioners agreeing to help them secure a financial settlement of $9.5 million. The sum is based on the value of the road in 1940 at $1.3 million and compounded annually at 5 percent. His letter states: “Over the years others have proposed alternative solutions to resolving the conditions of the agreement but none have been successful. In as such as this controversy has existed for 37 years, it is now time to resolve this controversy.”


Congressman Lamar Gudger, D-Asheville, introduces a bill for a cash settlement of $11.1 million. The bill passes the House but never makes it to the Senate.


A group of Swain County residents files a lawsuit in federal court against all the signatories of the ’43 Agreement asking for road to be built or the lake to be lowered. Known as the Helen Vance lawsuit, it is struck down, appealed, and struck down again. The families appealed a third time to the Supreme Court, but the Court refused to hear the case.


A hearing on dueling Senate bills is held in Bryson City. One bill would give Swain County a cash settlement of $9.5 million in lieu of the road. The other bill would build the road and give Swain $9.5 million to boot. County Commissioner Chairman James Coggins makes the following statement at the hearing: “We are weary of making agreements that are never honored by the federal government. It is my sincere desire that Congress will at last pass our long waited for settlement of the 1943 Agreement.”


Another hearing on the dueling Senate bills is held. County Commissioner Chairman James Coggins recycles the same speech as three years prior.


Senator Terry Sanford proposes a cash settlement of $16 million to Swain County. His bill also calls for designating 90 percent of park as wilderness.


Sen. Jesse Helms introduces legislation calling for construction of the road as well as cash payments to Swain County. The bill fails, as do efforts in 1993, 1995, and 1996.


Study puts cost of completing a road at between $136 and $150 million.

Summer, 2000

Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County is formed to advance the cause of a cash settlement. Ten people gather in the living room at Claude Douthit’s house. The group has 284 dues-paying members today.


Congressman Charles Taylor slips in $16 million for road construction during the conference committee of the federal budget.


The park service launches a lengthy and comprehensive environmental analysis of road construction, weighing it against a cash settlement. It would ultimately take five years and burn through $10 million of the money Taylor secured for road building.

Jan., 2003

Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County hire Crisp, Hughes and Evans accounting firm to come up with a figure for the monetary settlement. They arrive at $52 million, based on the cost of the road when it was flooded, with interest and adjusted for inflation.

Feb., 2003

Swain County commissioners vote 4-1 in favor of a cash settlement of $52 million. Bryson City aldermen adopt the same resolution.


North Carolina Governor Mike Easley, representing one of the original signatories to the ’43 Agreement, signs on in favor of a cash settlement.

March, 2007

A coalition of Senators and Congressmen from North Carolina and Tennessee sign a letter calling for a cash payoff to Swain County in lieu of building the road.

April, 2007

National Park Service announces its long-awaited decision in the lengthy environmental assessment. It comes down in favor of a cash settlement.

Dec., 2007

Congressman Heath Shuler from Western North Carolina, with the help of Senator Lamar Alexander from Tennessee, secure $6 million as a down payment on a cash settlement as part of the 2008 fiscal year budget. The funds have not yet been remitted to Swain County, however.


In preparation for a cash settlement, the N.C. General Assembly authorizes a trust fund that will safeguard the money on behalf of Swain County. The state will give the county the interest off the account annually, but the principal can’t be touched unless approved by two-thirds of voters in a countywide referendum.


Park reneges on dollar amount of $52 million and lowballs Swain County in negotiations. Advocates of a cash settlement feel double-crossed. Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson digs in on his position that $52 million is too much, while Swain leaders refuse to accept anything less. Negotiations remain in a stalemate.


Great Smoky Mountains National Park celebrates 75th anniversary. Swain County approaches its 67th year with an unsettled contract from the federal government.

Pointing kids toward a love of the park

Eric Sink, a teacher at Summit Charter School in Cashiers, N.C., looks forward to loading his fifth-graders up on a bus every year and heading into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where the woods become the classroom and a park ranger takes over as teacher for the day. Sink wants his students to realize that where they live is special.

“Why do we study about the rainforest in South America when we have one right here in the Southern Appalachians?” Sink questioned.

The Parks as Classrooms fieldtrip for fifth-graders focuses on air quality at Clingmans Dome, where students visit a monitoring station that tests high-elevation ozone.

“We start with several lessons prior to even going, like what creates the pollution and what can we do to reduce the pollution,” Sink said. “They think a lot about things they can actually do, like the conservation of electricity.”

Since most of the pollution is from coal-fired power plants, they begin to think, “‘If I turn off my lights, I conserve electricity and that’s less coal that has to be burned,’” Sink said. Students also think about driving cars that use less gas, or even riding a bike or walking.

Once in the park, the students turn into scientists, conducting their own experiments to measure the effects of air pollution. They do pH tests of the soil to detect acid rain. They measure wind speed and talk about how it carries the pollution into the mountains.

Sink loves to see his students developing hypotheses, collecting data and performing studies.

“It really gets them to think more about it. We always do better when we are there than learning inside the classroom,” Sink said. “I think the great thing about it is they get that firsthand experimental learning.”

The fieldtrips are tailored for each grade level. Each is synced with the curriculum for that grade — even for kindergarten.

The state curriculum for kindergartners includes learning about animals and how they interact with their environment. A fieldtrip to the Oconaluftee River in the Smokies provides the perfect opportunity.

“We saw squirrels scurrying around gathering nuts. We saw groundhogs popping their heads up in the field. There is lots we are observing and watching in terms of animals,” said Lee Messer, a kindergarten teacher at Hazelwood Elementary in Haywood County, who takes her kids on the fieldtrip every year.

The park is rife with the chance to use observation skills, another big part of the kindergarten curriculum. They get clipboards and magnifying glasses to observe the world around them. Park rangers show them natural objects, like turtle shells and otter pelts, and ask the students to describe how they look, feel, smell and sound. To heighten the use of senses, students listen to recordings of animals and try to guess what animal it is.

Kindergartners are learning how to sort objects by category, and the rock pebbles along the Oconaluftee River prove fertile ground. Armed with nothing but two buckets, the students pick their own attributes — bumpy versus smooth, for example — and sort accordingly.

“Taking this fieldtrip brings everything you are talking about all year long to life,” Messer said. “It is an amazing, amazing fieldtrip. The children always come back talking about it.”

When the Park becomes a classroom: From real life science to a trip back in time, the Smokies provides fertile ground for learning

While most national parks serve as conduits for science, the Smokies is a window on history as well. Churches, schools, general stores, lumber camps, grist mills, farms and homes once filled the valleys and hollers that now constitute the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

A program called Parks as Classrooms takes students back to those early days before the park was here, using the backdrop of the recreated farmstead of the Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill, both near the park’s North Carolina entrance outside Cherokee. Their tour guide is often Jay Johnstone, a fun-loving park ranger who’s perfected the art of seeing the park through kids’ eyes.

“The main goal we’re trying to do is connect the kids to the past,” Johnstone said. “Connecting kids with history can be a challenge. History can be a very dull textbook.”

But in the Smokies, where culture and history have been preserved in buildings and artifacts, it comes to life, whether it’s through the clang of the blacksmith’s hammer or creaky floorboards of the old mill.

“Walking in the footsteps, that connects you,” Johnstone said. “It’s not a picture. It’s not two-dimensional. You’re immersed in it. You can’t help but imagine what life would have been like. How would my life be different? How would it be the same?”

Johnstone, who is raising three kids of his own in Waynesville, knows just how to get through to them. As the students play hot potato with a bean bag of corn kernels and thread buttons on strings to make whirly-wigs, he asks them to think about their toys today compared to back then.

“We live in an age where more is better. Christmas isn’t good unless presents are piled to the ceiling,” Johnstone tells the kids.

The kids are particularly taken with an old black-and-white photo of students gathered on the steps of a one-room clapboard schoolhouse from the days before the Smokies became a national park. They press closer to Johnstone, awed by the faces of children their own age, staring back at them from another time but not another place, from right here where they stand today — only a century ago.

The students imagined a school where water was fetched in pails, where older boys chopped wood to feed the stove, where school only lasted six months so to not interrupt harvest and planting, and where some went to school barefoot.

Johnstone broke the spell by asking the students to whistle up their horses, the favored mode of transportation to get from one activity to the next during the field trip.

“Here they come!” Johnstone said, reaching out to grab his imaginary horse. “Now one hand on the saddle, throw your leg over and hi-yah, off we go!”

Johnstone took off down the trail with students galloping after him. When Johnstone finally stopped, breathless students encircled him to hear their next assignment: scavenger hunt through the forest in the days before supermarkets. Suddenly, birch tree twigs doubled as toothbrushes. Dried moss served as Band-aids. Sassafras roots made tea. While a novelty for today’s kids, Johnstone explained it was about necessity back then.

Students protested vehemently when asked why they couldn’t have learned all this back home in their classroom. “It is cooler to just see it for yourself,” said Cecelia Tucker, a second-grader at Clyde Elementary in Haywood County.

The fieldtrips are far from a play day. They are synched with the curriculum for each grade level, augmenting what the students are already learning that year.


Learning in action

Parks as Classrooms offers students in middle school a chance to become real scientists. Keith Roden, the principal at Waynesville Middle School, was impressed by what he saw when tagging along with a class of sixth-graders to the Applachian Highlands Science Learning Center in the Haywood County section of the Smokies last fall. As the students probed the woods for insects and put them under a microscope, they quickly fell into friendly competition over who caught the most and whose bugs were cutest.

“They are learning here just like they do in the classroom, but fieldtrips like these stick in their minds. They make an impression. It’s something they can relate to,” Roden said.

Students scrambled to take turns with the insect sucker, a long tube with a bulbous rubber tip akin to a turkey baster, while the rest sifted through leaf litter like they were panning for gold. Before long, they developed a bond with their insects, concerned whether the critters would be turned loose after the microscope session and whether the suctioning injured them.

The creepy crawlies brought the otherwise boring subject of soil to life for the students.

“You really don’t notice all the things in dirt like bugs, but when you take the time to notice them it is really cool,” said Sam Dickson, a sixth-grader at Waynesville Middle School.

The insect exercise was coupled with a battery of soil tests to measure chemical and physical attributes of the soil.

“If you take the fieldtrip the right way, you really see nature and science in a different way,” said Jacob Estrada, also a Waynesville sixth-grader. “Something that you just ignore but when you take the time to explore it, you really see it is the source of life.”

Teachers draw on the exercises in the park all year long, said Park Ranger Susan Sachs, the education coordinator for the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center, a park outpost at Purchase Knob near Maggie Valley.

“The teachers will say ‘Remember when we were in the park and we took pH of the soil?’” Sachs said. “It makes it real for them.”

Students get satisfaction from doing real science, not just duplicating prefab experiments out of a textbook. Whether it’s counting insects at Purchase Knob or measuring wind speed at Clingmans Dome, the students’ results are entered in an online data base. Students can compare their results to those of other classes previous years. It gives them a sense of their contribution to science. Sachs said rangers track changes in the environment based on students’ findings. Called “citizen science,” it’s one of the hallmarks of Parks as Classrooms.

“It makes it more fun and exciting when you are out there doing it,” said Tiffany Dennis. “You are out in nature, so it feels like a real scientist.”

More than 15,000 school children come face-to-face with the wonder of the park every year through Parks as Classrooms.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was one of the first in the nation to launch Parks as Classrooms. The idea arose in 1991, pushed by the National Park Foundation during the 75th anniversary of the National Park Service. The Smokies was selected as a pilot park and set about developing a program that was intrinsic to the Smokies but could provide a model for others.

While successful, the pressure of standardized testing in schools has made it harder for teachers to justify fieldtrips.

“A lot of people feel they need to be in the classroom to teach what is ultimately going to be tested,” said Karen Ballentine, education chief for the park.

That’s where Parks as Classrooms has an edge over other field trips, however.

“I think it helps them academically and puts things in context in terms of real world learning,” Ballentine said. “We can demonstrate to a principal that the time away from the classroom actually enhances their learning and does not detract from it.”

Fieldtrips build knowledge from one year to the next, designed with a natural progression for the lucky students who get to go each year. It also helps build a love for the park.

“As they move along they hopefully start to care about the parks and want to give back at that point,” Ballentine said.


A larger mission

While it is not fueled by a conscious ulterior motive, Parks as Classrooms is helping to cultivate that next generation of park supporters.

“Over time, the return on the investment is you end up with adults who are the community’s decision makers with that positive experience with the park in their background,” said George Ivey, former director of development for Friends of the Smokies. “The program resonates with some of our key supporters who also really value kids who understand conservation issues.”

Another fringe benefit to the park is forging a deeper bond with surrounding communities.

“For so many years the park was seen as a burden to local communities,” Ivey said. “Because it was formed out of private land, people had to sacrifice to create the park and did not always see the benefit. These education programs are one of the key ways attitudes have changed.”

Kids who venture to the park for a fieldtrip serve as an unsuspecting ambassador for the park when talking to their families at the dinner table that night.

“It opens their eyes to parks and open spaces,” Ballentine said. “Many of them bring their families back and take them to some of the sights they have seen, whether it is Purchase Knob or Deep Creek or Clingmans Dome.”

When Waynesville middle school Principal Keith Roden tagged along on a field trip to Purchase Knob last year, he picked up on an important value in Parks as Classrooms.

“It’s just good for them to get out and enjoy nature and hopefully want to protect it. A lot of them don’t have parents who take them out hiking and camping,” Roden said.

The Smokies is a conduit for engaging kids with the outdoors and healing the disconnect recently coined “nature deficit disorder.”

Park Ranger Jay Johnstone said nature deficit disorder is not as striking in rural areas as urban. Here, many kids have gardens in their yard, trees to climb and creeks within reach. Nonetheless, he is shocked by the number of kids who haven’t ventured into the Smokies before.

One take-home message rangers impart is that the park belongs to everyone. During a pop quiz at the end of Johnstone’s Mingus Mill fieldtrip, he asked “True or false: you own the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.” Their answer was a resounding “no.”

“Guess what? You’re all wrong,” Johnstone said. “This is your park. You own the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and 390 more.”

An eye for mountains: An Ansel Adams of the Smokies, George Masa was one of the greatest photographers of his era. So why have so many people never heard of him?

By Michael Beadle

There’s a view on the way up to Clingmans Dome, an overlook where a maze of finger-like ridges unfurl at your feet and spread across the landscape before tumbling into the Oconaluftee River Valley below. Surveying this vast, unspoiled wilderness, photographer Don McGowan likes to think George Masa once stood here taking photos nearly a century ago.

McGowan can’t help but wonder whether the views of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that he enjoys today are largely the result of Masa’s tireless efforts to capture the subtle beauty and awe-inspiring vistas that many take for granted.

“I think he felt a kinship with these mountains,” McGowan said of Masa. “To see through his eyes is always an inspiration to me.”

Masa, who once helped scout the course of the Appalachian Trail through North Carolina and recorded peaks and distances in the Great Smokies, earned his very own spot on the Tennessee side of the park with the naming of Masa Knob in 1961. While the self-taught, Japanese-born photographer earned a great reputation for his endurance as a hiker promoting the idea of preserving mountain land for posterity, he died in 1933 before the Great Smokies became a park. Grieving over the death of his good friend Horace Kephart, plunged into debt during the Great Depression, and suffering from influenza, Masa died in 1933 in the Buncombe County Sanatorium in Asheville. Hundreds of his photos fell into obscurity, many unidentified, lost or stored away by private collectors. Even his grave at Riverside Cemetery in Asheville (the resting place of famous writers Thomas Wolfe and O. Henry) was unmarked. Today much of Masa’s work remains largely unknown beyond the Southern Appalachian region.

But that’s about to change.

A new Ken Burns documentary called “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” is set to air on UNC-TV the week of Sept. 27 and features the work of George Masa and the role he played with friend and writer Horace Kephart in making the park a reality. The 12-hour, six-part film by the award-winning and famous Burns may finally give Masa’s legacy the attention he so rightfully deserves, according to Paul Bonesteel, an Asheville-based filmmaker who collaborated with Burns on the “National Parks” documentary.

Bonesteel directed a Masa documentary of his own in 2003, “The Mystery of George Masa,” that fueled a resurgence in learning more about Masa’s work and found a home on PBS stations nationwide. Thanks to the added clout from Burns, Bonesteel’s documentary on Masa will be made available to PBS stations for the next three years.

“A lot more people will be hearing the story of George Masa because of that,” Bonesteel said.

Recent magazine articles, art exhibits, lectures and historical essays have given more people a chance to get to know George Masa, though his younger years before coming to Asheville are still shrouded in mystery. Why did he leave Japan? Why did he not discuss his past with friends and close business associates? How did he die penniless and in obscurity when he once counted the Vanderbilts as clients of his photography business?

Bonesteel learned of the man dubbed “the Ansel Adams of the Appalachian Mountains” through a biographical article written by William A. Hurt Jr. in the book May We All Remember Well: A Journey of the History & Culture of Western North Carolina, published in 1997. Intrigued by what he read, Bonesteel contacted Hurt, who said he felt like he’d only scratched the surface of this enigmatic figure. After a few years of researching Masa’s life, poring over letters and photographs from various university archives and private collections, Bonesteel found a fascinating story of a man who was leading the environmentalist charge long before the hippies of the 1960s.

“He was a curious and mysterious fellow,” Bonesteel said. “There are mysteries that we won’t ever be able to answer. And people like mysteries.”


Masa’s background

Masa was certainly not the first to photograph the majestic peaks and scenic vistas of the Great Smoky Mountains, but in the early 1900s, no one had taken on such a monumental task of measuring, mapping and photographing as many of these mountains with the passion and skill as Masa.

Based on the limited information about his early years, there’s not much to tell. He was born in Japan in 1881. His birth name was Masahara Iizuka. Late 19th century Japan was in a state of social and political upheaval. The long-running shogun government system which had isolated the country from Westernized culture finally opened up, bringing a flood of European and American traders into the country.

The Japanese ban on emigration had also been lifted, and tens of thousands of Japanese left their homeland for work in America, many going to Hawaii to toil in the sugar plantations, while others relocated to California, which saw an explosion of population and business after its gold rush.

Iizuka ended up in Asheville in 1915 as part of a traveling group of Austrian students. Together, they would go on mountain hiking excursions, and Iizuka fell in love with the region. When it was time for the Austrian group to leave, Iizuka stayed behind and found work as a valet at the Grove Park Inn. Fred Seely, the manager of the Grove Park Inn who also organized Biltmore Industries, hired the young Japanese newcomer as a woodcarver.

Iizuka, like many foreign-born immigrants with hard-to-pronounce names, decided to Anglicize his name, keeping part of his original moniker. And so he became George Masa.

Masa got his start in photography by developing film for hotel guests. By the 1920s, Masa developed his own business as a photographer, taking portraits and working as a freelance photojournalist for Asheville newspapers and news services. His photography studios went through various names and partners, but he soon became well known locally as a landscape photographer, and his work found its way into magazines, newspapers and chamber of commerce brochures.


The Kephart connection

Historians are not clear exactly when Masa befriended the outdoor travel writer Horace Kephart, but the two found a mutual passion in hiking through the mountains and for creating what would become the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. George Ellison, a writer based in Bryson City, N.C., who has researched and lectured extensively on Masa and Kephart, notes that the two had a lot in common. Both were wiry men who loved the outdoors, and the park gave them a mutual goal to save the mountains they loved so much. They hiked and camped together, and Masa’s photographs would often accompany Kephart’s articles.

“They were quite a formidable team,” Ellison said.

When Kephart died in a car accident in 1931, Masa was devastated, and before Masa died two years later, he asked to be buried along side of his friend. Though that wish was not granted, and neither lived to see the official creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, they were among an elite few to have place names in their honor. Today, Masa Knob stands next to Mt. Kephart, two peaks for two kindred spirits.

While many of Masa’s photographs remain lost or undiscovered, Bonesteel believes that a large body of his work has been made available to give us plenty of insights into his artistry. Masa, sporting his signature bandana and home-made bicycle wheel odometer that he used to measure distances along trails and up to the tops of mountains, is pictured alongside fellow hikers and curious tourists.

There are various stories of this painstaking perfectionist hiking miles into the woods and waiting for hours to get the clouds and the lighting just right before taking his photos. Masa lugged heavy camera equipment into the wilderness and when he pitched a tent, he might store the camera and equipment under shelter as he slept outside. Sometimes friends and fellow hikers would help him carry the equipment up and over mountains.

Author and outdoors photographer Bill Lea said he admires Masa not only for his creative eye for putting the viewer right in the middle of a wilderness setting but also for his work ethic and his willingness to trek great distances with little provision for himself in his quest to find the best photos.

“In fact,” Lea explained, “many people felt he died young due to the disregard he had for his own welfare and subsequent exposure to the elements in his great desire to capture those perfect images.”

In addition to enduring long hikes and inclement weather through rough terrain, Masa most likely had prolonged exposure to toxic chemicals used in film developing that may have given him respiratory illnesses. He suffered from bouts of tuberculosis and ultimately succumbed to influenza.

And not everyone was keen on Masa.

Bonesteel found evidence in letters that Fred Seely, who once hired Masa as a woodcarver at Biltmore Industries, secretly reported on Masa to the federal government. At a time when immigrants and outsiders were viewed suspiciously, Masa’s meticulous record-keeping and documentation of his photographs may have raised some red flags, but Seely soon called off the dogs when there was no substantive evidence that Masa was doing anything un-American. From Bonesteel’s research, he found some subtle forms of prejudice, but more often than not local residents were accepting of Masa and his work and were attracted to the novelty of a talented Japanese photographer in their midst.

“He did a lot of work to capture the grandness of the mountains,” Bonesteel explained. And even in his more commercial work of buildings and architecture, the quality is still there.


True scope unknown

While Masa has been compared to Ansel Adams, whose photography popularized the Rocky Mountains and the beauty of the western U.S., Bonesteel argues that the two had very different intentions. Adams saw himself as an artist and had his work shown in galleries. Masa never had an exhibition in a gallery during his lifetime and made a living by selling postcards, portraits and tourist shots.

Bonesteel speculates that there may be hundreds, even thousands of Masa photographs still out there waiting to be seen. A Buncombe County listing of Masa’s possessions at his death suggest the possibility of thousands of negatives. Today, there are several sizeable archives of Masa’s work found at Pack Memorial Library in downtown Asheville, as well as the University of North Carolina at Asheville and Western Carolina University in Cullowhee.

George Frizzell, head of special collections at Western Carolina’s library, helps to preserve Masa’s photos by storing them in Mylar sleeves to keep the natural oils in fingers from damaging them. Given the latest digital photography techniques and computer scanners, Frizzell hopes that more of Masa’s photos can be stored indefinitely and shown to wider audiences via the Internet.

Since Bonesteel’s film came out in 2003, he has been contacted by a family that once kept Masa as a guest at their boarding house in Asheville. Descendents of the family who knew Masa claim to have letters Masa received from Japan. Masa still owed this family about $1,200 at the time of his death, but they kept his letters because of the beauty of the Japanese characters on paper. If these letters could be acquired and translated, they might shed some light as to whether Masa was still in contact with Japanese family and friends and what his relationship was with them. But so far, Bonesteel hasn’t been able to procure those letters.

“I don’t rule out the possibility that something may come out of that,” he said. “There’s work yet to do. The answers may be out there.”

Hard-to-get taxonomists could make or break ATBI’s future

As the inventory of every living species in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park trudges into its tenth year, it turns out the biggest hunt so far isn’t for obscure slime molds or nocturnal flies — it’s for taxonomists to do the counting.

“In the beginning we cast a wide net: all these things need to be researched and if you want to do that, come,” said Todd Witcher, the director of Discover Life in America. “Now the park is wanting to look at things that are understudied. There are cases where there just is nobody to do it.”

Witcher’s pitch to lure hard-to-get taxonomists — beyond simply being part of the world’s premier species inventory — includes the thrill of finding and naming a new species.

“The idea of discovering a new species is intriguing,” Witcher said. “That’s why they are in science or taxonomy.”

As more national parks and preserves follow in the footsteps of the Smokies and launch their own all-species inventories, the global shortage of taxonomists is becoming even more apparent. The competition for experts in an already strained field makes it unclear how or when the Smokies’ All-Taxa Biological Inventory will eventually conclude.

“When it comes to getting taxonomists in a field where there are no experts, it’s hard to predict how long some of that will take,” Witcher said.

Life in the richest place on earth

When Jim Lowe strikes out on his twice-monthly foray to check insect traps in the Smokies, he never knows just what is in store.

Lowe runs various and sundry traps — tiny cups sunk in the ground, large mesh nets draped from poles and funnels dangling in the tree canopy. As a volunteer for the All Taxa Biological Inventory, Lowe ambushes moths, spiders, millipedes, bees, flies, beetles and the whole array of insects in the name of science.

During his collection rounds, he often wonders, “Is this a new species?” It is usually months, or even years, until he knows the answer, after taxonomists get their hands on the specimens and cull through them.

But to Lowe, the ATBI is more than the thrill of the hunt, more than a laundry list of new species or bragging rights as the most diverse park.

“We are asking the fundamental question: what do each of these things do? What is their role in the ecosystem?” said Lowe, who lives outside Robbinsville. “The Smokies is a most extraordinary place. There is so much diversity.”

The quest to document every life form in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has rallied researchers from across the globe, inspired by this last frontier of exploration. While cavers probed the park’s limestone depths, climbers harnessed ropes to explore life in the vast canopy of old-growth trees. Teams outfitted in wetsuits and snorkels peered under rocks in the ancient river beds, while others combed the dank underside of logs for mysterious breeds of fungus.

The undertaking is the first of its kind in the world. Ten years and counting, the ATBI still has long way to go. The Smokies is a bastion of biodiversity and ferreting out the estimated 60,000 species hasn’t been easy.

“Some of it’s under the ground, some of it’s on top of the tree canopy, some if it’s out at night when we’re not around,” said Paul Super, a research coordinator for the Smokies who is stationed at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center in Haywood County, N.C.

Some species are so specialized they appear only when the right conditions align, perhaps every 20 years or more. Super has been waiting for years for a good winter snow pack to reveal rare slime mold species that only emerge under the right spring thaw conditions.

While discovering new species is exhilarating in its own right, it’s not the driver behind the ATBI, Super said.

“We have been charged with protecting this 550,000-acre black box, to take care of all the resources that are in it and make sure they will survive centuries into the future while allowing people to visit and enjoy the park,” Super said “We want to open the black box and see what’s in it so we can protect its biological diversity with a foundation of science and understanding.”

While the ATBI has earned the Smokies bragging rights as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, Park Ranger Keith Langdon says the ATBI is much more than a ledger of species.

“How could it make us be more intelligent stewards of the park forever?” asked Langdon, chief of inventory and monitoring in the park.

Until the ATBI, the park had only a vague idea of what birds lived where, but now they have maps of breeding grounds for different species and the niche microclimates they inhabit, Langdon said.

Todd Witcher, the executive director of Discover Life in America, doesn’t discount the value of sheer knowledge: science for science’s sake.

“People are interested in what’s out there. Anytime you go on a hike, people want to know, ‘What is that? What is this? What’s behind that rock?’” Witcher said. “Sometimes it doesn’t go any further than putting a name to something.”

But the study of individual species is a key to unlocking the secrets of the ecosystem as a whole.

“An ecosystem is made up of all these things that are interdependent. The big stuff wouldn’t be there without the small stuff,” Witcher said. “In general, we are trying to find out what the small stuff is and how it connects to all those bigger things.”

Life on earth hinges on thousands of “cryptic yet important” microorganisms, according to Peter White, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and board member of Discover Life in America.

The ATBI is going a long way to detect those critical links, like the slime mold that decomposes fallen logs and leaves, creating fertile soil for acorns to sprout. The oak from that acorn will one day become a winter den for a black bear giving birth to cubs — all on the backs of the microscopic slime mold that until now no one knew existed.


A worthy cause

At Discover Life in America, Witcher’s job is to convince the public — and people handing out grants — that the ATBI has value beyond an interesting counting exercise. Discover Life in America is the non-profit established to coordinate the operation, from training volunteers to the all-important fundraising.

When pitching the ATBI, the allure of pharmaceutical discoveries or DNA breakthroughs rise to the top. For example, the Smokies has garnered repute for its slime molds, bestowed with the charming title of “Slime Mold Capital of the World.” While slime molds have all sorts of important roles — an anchor at the bottom of the food chain that higher life depends on — medical researchers have latched on to a particular slime mold species from the Smokies as holding a cure for Alzheimer’s.

The ATBI has provided a platform for scientists to collude with the other top experts in their field, such as a fly blitz held a couple of years ago.

“There were 25 brilliant scientist from all over the world to study flies,” Witcher said, ticking off countries like Israel, Ukraine, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Korea and Peru.

They collected flies and studied specimens by day, and took turns putting on mini-presentations at night. Man’s understanding of the natural world was better off at week’s end than at the beginning.

Even flies have a vital function. They are the top pollinator after bees, and in maggot form they play a vital role in decomposition of dead animals and plants.

The ATBI has captured the imagination of scientists worldwide. More than 700 researchers from 20 countries have flocked to the Smokies to be a part of the ATBI. What started as a scrappy undertaking, even a pipedream, has become the largest sustained natural history inventory in the world.

“Assisted by volunteers and with only a shoestring budget, they have built it into a major enterprise of biological research,” according to famous Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson.

The ATBI has not only enchanted scientists, but it has dropped school children into the woods as first-hand explorers.

“Children are innately curious about the living world and are closer to the ground than we are — and more ready to turn over rocks and logs,” White said.

School children from surrounding communities on fieldtrips in the park have been enlisted in the hunt for everything from moths to salamanders.


Life on a string

One of the scariest tasks staring down the Smokies is protecting species found nowhere else on earth. Known as endemic species, these hyperlocal life forms carved out a niche on the planet so specific that if they disappear from the park, they disappear forever.

“The national park’s mission is to protect what exists in the park,” Witcher said. “If you don’t know what’s there, you don’t know what is disappearing.”

And the threats are daunting.

“There’s air pollution. There’s global warming. There is acid rain. There is urban development jutting right up next to the park. There is overuse, loving our park to death. There are also invasive exotic species,” Witcher said.

So, the ATBI is providing a crucial baseline to measure future changes against, the very diversity of the Smokies serving as a giant canary in the coal mine.

“Ecosystems and species provide for an early warning system for the health of the biosphere and the human habitat,” White said.

The Smokies’ biodiversity is partly due to its array of unique habitats: a combination of warm valleys and frosty peaks, moist rich coves and dry southern slopes, creating hundreds of microclimates and ecosystems. Each niche teems with its own thriving species.

The peak biodiversity is found in mid-range elevations, where the lower and higher altitude species overlap. That’s something the park didn’t realize prior to the ATBI, Langdon said.

The Smokies’ high-elevation ridges host numerous species otherwise found in more northern climes. Isolated from the rest of their species since the last Ice Age, these northern vagabonds trapped on high-elevation islands in the Smokies can evolve on their own track and end up genetically different from their northern cousin.

One such peripheral population marked a major milestone in the ATBI — the 5,000th species discovered in the Park that was not previously known to dwell here.

The Velvet Leaf Blueberry was found during an inventory field day at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center at Purchase Knob in Haywood County. The thigh-high shrub was first encountered in the Park a few years earlier, but eluded botanists until it was found blooming during an ATBI field day.

Not every species uncovered by the ATBI is cause to celebrate. Take another find from Purchase Knob, a small round beetle found feeding on St. John’s Wort by two volunteers, retired entomologist Dr. Charles Stains and his wife.

Their unfortunate find was the “Klamath Weed Beetle,” an invasive species from Europe and Northern Africa, adding to the depressingly long list of exotics undermining the native ecosystem. Another exotic species unearthed during the inventory is the Chinese jumping worm. It aggressively devours organic matter before it can be synthesized by the soil, severely compromising the nutrient composition.

The worm was likely released inadvertently by fishermen who had purchased the worms from bait shops. Thanks to the ATBI, the species was detected before becoming widespread in the Park and can hopefully be stopped.


How it all began

When the Smokies launched the ATBI in 1998, it was the first of its kind in the world. Despite the many parks and preserves now emulating the research, the Smokies remains at the forefront.

Along the way, the Smokies benefited from a little blind luck. In the early 1990s, a famous and pre-eminent tropical ecologist, Dr. Dan Janzen, began rallying scientists to join him in an inventory of life in Costa Rica. Janzen urged ecologists to take note of the critical crossroads facing the planet today: that we’re losing life faster than we can catalog it.

Janzen raised millions for his project and entrusted it to an agency created to spearhead the Costa Rica project. But it barely got off the ground before the agency recanted, pitching other uses for the money than just the species inventory.

Janzen was furious. He terminated the project, leaving the hordes of scientists geared up for the undertaking not only disappointed but wondering what to do next.

From his corner of the Smokies, biologist Keith Langdon watched the rise and fall of Janzen’s great tropical inventory. Langdon and his fellow park rangers had long held the notion that life here in the Smokies was just as rich — and fragile — as the famed rainforests.

“We, too, are losing things faster than we can catalog it,” Langdon said.

Langdon occasionally finagled small pots of money for tailored inventory work, like the number of crayfish in a particular stream or the trees preferred for breeding by a single endangered bat.

“It would have taken us about 150 years at that rate to finish the inventory of the park,” Langdon said.

So Langdon called the fuming Janzen and pitched the idea of deploying an inventory in the Smokies instead. Janzen was in, but they couldn’t do it without support from the world’s scientists. Unsure if those who’d previously signed on for Costa Rica would invest in the Smokies, Janzen agreed to hold an informal talk in the park to gauge interest.

“We had 120 scientists show up,” Langdon recalled. “He’d gotten the taxonomists all excited. They were looking forward to showing what they could do if they all joined together.”

Langdon still needed a green light from national park bureaucrats, so the lobbying began. In a fitting move, the deputy director of the park service flew down from D.C. on Earth Day (April 20) of 1998.

“He said ‘Yup, let’s do this. We want to try this out and the Smokies will be our pilot. We aren’t going to give you any money, but you can do it,’” Langdon recalled.

Then began the tough job of logistics. Who would run it, where would money come from, where should scientists start counting?

“We knew it was a big deal, a big commitment and a lot of work,” Langdon said. “It’s a big park, it’s diverse and difficult to get around. We knew it wouldn’t be easy.”

The park looked to Friends of the Smokies for help. The Friends agreed to help launch the project, but ultimately planned to spin off a separate non-profit tasked solely with managing the ATBI. Together with the Great Smoky Mountains Association, Friends of the Smokies co-sponsored the creation of Discover Life in America to get the ball rolling.


Trial and error

Now the brass tacks could begin. But the logistics of just how to do this thing proved difficult. In fact, 10 years into the project, Langdon is still sorting out the best approach.

When people hear about the ATBI, they envision a chain of scientists sweeping quadrants of the park, crawling along the ground with a magnifying glass in hand, perhaps a crew leader bellowing through a megaphone for all the critters out there to please stand still for a head count.

But in fact, there will still be vast sections of the park never touched by scientists when the books are eventually closed on the ATBI. Instead, the park will pick sampling sites that theoretically represent every habitat niche.

The past decade has focused on just 11 plots subjected to intensive sampling. A rotating door of experts on spiders, moths, ants, slime molds, fungi, and birds took their turn trapping and tagging at the targeted plots. Teams of volunteers were critical in the sampling, from checking insect traps, wielding nets or toting clipboards for the scientists.

The plots had to be checked and rechecked every two weeks all year long, since many species emerge during certain seasons, whether it is a short-lived wildflower or a bat showing up to nest. For example, the synchronous fireflies, famous for their choreographed light show and found few places other than the Smokies, are only active for a 10-day window. The “when and where” of species is a critical part of the ATBI data.

“If somebody came to me and gave me a list of all the species, it wouldn’t help me. I need to know where they are at, their abundance, the seasonality of it, which ones are rare to keep track of and which ones are common, and something about their ecological role,” Langdon said.

That initial strategy — intensive sampling at 11 sites — wasn’t perfect, however. For starters, the parade of bio blitzes and life quests raked in an unmanageable volume of organisms still queued up waiting for a taxonomist to inspect them, Langdon said. The backlog could take years to clear out, specimens languishing in storerooms for want of scientists to sort them.

Plus, the 11 sites weren’t representative enough of the park’s numerous microhabitats, Langdon’s realized.

“We just missed it with 11 sites,” Langdon said.

Enter the next phase of the ATBI: far more sites, but far less intensive. The park mapped out 150 sampling sites for quick hits, comparatively, by tactical teams. The new strategy will likely define the next decade of the ATBI.


In the Smokies’ footsteps

National parks and private preserves all over the world are tackling similar inventories. Exactly how many isn’t known, but there were nine that cropped up at other national parks in 2008 alone. Top that off with some at state parks, private nature preserves and parks around the world, and there are likely a couple of dozen.

“A lot of people initially said ‘You can’t do that, it is too much,’” Langdon said. “I think we have shown you can make some great strides wading into that. There are a lot of parks following in our footsteps.”

For a national park embarking on a species inventory, their first step is usually calling Todd Witcher at Discover Life in America for advice.

“We are helping the other ATBIs learn from our mistakes and learn from our knowledge,” Witcher said. “We want to share that information even though there will probably be a little competition.”

That competition — whether for grant money or luring researchers — has contributed to a slowdown of the Smokies own ATBI.

Witcher’s top bit of advice: the drudgery of data management. A laundry list of species isn’t useful unless they can be mapped, charted, sorted and searched with computer programs.

“We are still dealing with our backlogged data,” Witcher said.

Discover Life in America is more than an ATBI facilitator. Witcher sees the nonprofit as a scientific arm of the park, coordinating science and research on a host of levels. Discover Life has an annual budget of about $120,000, varying with grants. The nonprofit recruits and coordinates volunteers, raises awareness for science in the park, manages teams of researchers cycling through the project, stores the data and generally makes the ATBI possible.

Friends of the Smokies and the Great Smoky Mountains Association provide the core of Discover Life in America’s budget.


The road ahead

The ATBI will likely continue in some form for decades to come, although it will taper off in intensity. A decision no one relishes is when to declare mission accomplished.

“If we get to 90 percent, is that enough?” Witcher asked. “The last 10 percent is probably really, really rare and hard to find, so do you want to spend a lot of money on something that is going to take a lot of effort and be really difficult to complete?”

But getting to 90 percent is still a long way off. So far, 16,000 species have been identified. Scientists believe the park holds as many as 60,000.

As Phil Francis, a long-time assistant superintendent of the park once remarked, “How many species are there in the Smokies? It reminds me of the question we used to get at Mammoth Cave National Park: How many miles of unexplored cave are there?”

Another challenge is keeping the public excited about yet another slime mold or millipede.

“About half of all the species in the park are believed to be insects and other invertebrates,” Langdon said. Lichen and plants take up another good chunk of the pie. That leaves perhaps just 1 percent for the birds, reptiles, fish, amphibians and mammals that most capture the public’s interest — or at least until now. The ATBI has moved the public’s image of the Smokies beyond the bears and elk and trout.

“The project draws people from the human scale to see the hidden, unknown, and obscure, but often beautiful, intricate, and ecologically important species of natural ecosystems,” White said. “It shows parks as oases, storehouses, and protectors of biological diversity.”

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