Shutdown ignites strong feelings about public lands

op frBy Sarah Kucharski • Columnist

The government shutdown went into effect on the first night I arrived in Yosemite National Park. There was no phone call at midnight, no note on the door in the morning. The birds still chirped, and the redwood trees still perfumed the air. Yet there was a great sense of angst. At the park hotel’s front desk, I was just one of many tourists asking what to do next — do we stay, or do we go? The road to Glacier Point already had been closed, making the day’s planned hikes impossible. The stables were shuttered too, which meant no mule rides. Restaurants and retail operations within the valley would be closing during the next 48 hours. And so we packed our bags, shoved everything back into our rental car, and left.

Businesses with ties to national parks suffering during shutdown

out frFrom wedding planners to elk tour guides to non-profit organizations, the closing of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park hasn’t only disrupted the livelihood of federal workers.

The park is home to a wide variety of outside enterprises working independently yet inextricably tied to it. In many ways, the federal impasse that caused the ongoing shutdown has hurt these operations more than the federal workers who have been furloughed.

Smokies and Parkway open to windshield tourists only

fr emptylotThe impasse at the federal level will touch all areas of operation at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Blue Ridge Parkway, closing picnic areas, campgrounds, bathrooms, visitor centers and historic sites.

Shutdown irks tourism industry on the eve of leaf season

The tourism industry in Western North Carolina is not letting the shut down of visitor facilities on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park or national forests in the region darken their spirits as the mountains head into the busiest tourism time of the year.

Turned Away: Visitors, residents barred from national park

coverWhen Joe and Dolly Parker approached the entrance of the Deep Creek campground Tuesday morning, the sign read “Office Closed.”

“We can’t believe this,” Dolly said.

A retired couple from Key Largo, Fla., the Parkers spend upwards of five months each year traveling and camping around the country. Joe rides his motorcycle, with Dolly following behind in their campervan. Amid of all their stops, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of their favorites. 

Cemeteries ensconced by park remain a source of consternation

fr decorationdayIt is a day Lawrence Hyatt looks forward to all year — venturing into the Smokies backcountry to pay homage at the graves of early settlers who lived there.

National forest balds in jeopardy due to funding cuts

out frBy Danny Bernstein • Contributor           

Many hikers are amazed by the balds that dot the Southern Appalachian landscape along the Appalachian Trail. Walking out of a tunnel of rhododendrons onto an open meadow where the views go on forever can be an exhilarating experience.

But what if Big Bald was no longer bald and the beloved Max Patch became a maze of bushes, brambles, and vines?

This year, the $35,000 to manage the balds in North Carolina and Tennessee national forests was eliminated from the National Park Service budget. But that’ s not the end of the story.

N.C. parks prove popular with visitors

More than a quarter million visitors to North Carolina state parks used a new reservations system in its first full year of operation, with most campers preferring short visits to state parks near their homes, according to the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation.

By far, the most popular park for camping and picnicking by reservation was Jordan Lake State Recreation Area, which logged 14,124 reservations during the year ending July 30. It was followed by Kerr Lake State Recreation Area (6,162) and Hanging Rock (5,256), Stone Mountain (5,062) and Carolina Beach (4,410) state parks.

The year-end reservations report showed that the state parks system’s online and call center-based system placed 61,484 reservations for campsites, picnic shelters and other amenities.

“The reservations system has been very popular, and we anticipated an important byproduct would be detailed information about our visitors and how they use the parks,” said Lewis Ledford, state parks director. “Over time, that will help us improve visitor service and gain more insight into how state parks contribute to local economies.”

The state parks attracted visitors from 16 nations during the year with Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom contributing the most foreign visitors, but reservations originated in far-flung locations such as Australia, Namibia and Sweden. North Carolinians, of course, were the most frequent visitors, and most state park campgrounds were populated by people from nearby towns, although there were exceptions. For instance, Hammocks Beach and Pilot Mountain state parks most often had campers from the Triangle area. Visitors from Charlotte most often filled Lake James, Morrow Mountain, New River and Stone Mountain state parks.

Reservations for campsites peaked in the months of April, May and June with a smaller but noticeable spike during August. The typical camping trip involved three people staying two nights on a weekend. In total, 123,149 nights of camping were reserved.

State park visitors were most comfortable making reservations in person at a state park (47.6 percent), while 35.9 percent of the reservations were made online and 16.5 percent were made through a call center. Visitors can camp without a reservation if a site is available when they arrive. Reservations can be made up to 48 hours in advance, online at or by calling toll-free 1.877.7 CAMP NC (722.6762).

Gun ban in national parks lifted

Loaded guns are now legal in national parks.

The new rule is two years in the making. Previously, guns had to be unloaded and stowed in the trunks of vehicles when traveling through a park. While hunting or firing a gun in a park is still illegal, visitors can now tote loaded guns freely per the firearm rules of neighboring states. Locally, that means the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

A move to lift the ban on guns in parks was pushed by the Bush Administration during its final months in power, but was staved off by lawsuits.

The Obama Administration then inherited the issue. It was tabled for study along with a host of other regulations left as a parting gift by the outgoing Bush administration, which is typical of outgoing administrations.

Before the Obama Administration could take up the issue and before the lawsuits played out, Congress passed a law lifting the ban on guns in parks. That trumped any debate over the rule change by simply making it law. The vote was last summer, but the law went into effect Feb. 22.

The law received stiff opposition from the national park traveling public, environmental groups and various park ranger associations, including the U.S. Park Rangers Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police.

“This law is a very bad idea,” said Bill Wade, chair for the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.

Loaded guns increases the likelihood of opportunistic shooting at wildlife, or pot shots at everything from park signs to historic landmarks. A camper startled by a bear might pull out their gun and fire indiscriminately, posing a risk to campers nearby.

“Visitors will not only be more at risk, but will now see national parks as places where they need to be more suspicious and wary of others carrying guns, rather than safe and at peace in the solitude and sanctuary that parks have always provided. It is a sad chapter in the history of America’s premier heritage area system,” Wade said.

Hunting is still illegal in national parks. Sometimes hunters on adjacent land have to cross into a national park to retrieve hunting dogs gone astray. They typically hide their guns in the leaves or under a bush or take them back to their vehicles first.

Despite the new law, that’s still the best course of action, said Bob Miller, spokesperson for the Smokies. Wandering about the park with a shotgun in hunting gear during hunting season looks a lot like illegally hunting in the park, and could result in a ticket, Miller said.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is cautioning visitors to make sure they can legally possess a firearm under local, state and federal laws, which is a criteria for carrying one in a national park.

“Our goal is to provide safe, enjoyable park visits for everyone, and to preserve this very special place for people today and future generations,” said Blue Ridge Parkway Superintendent Phil Francis.

Symbolic torch passing honors national park anniversaries

A Cherokee elder presided over a ceremonial torch passing from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the Blue Ridge Parkway last week.

Standing at an overlook along the Parkway outside Cherokee, Elder Jerry Wolfe performed a “smudging” to open the ceremony, waving a feather and burning sage over the four corners of the land.

“The grounds and our souls are all cleansed,” Wolfe pronounced.

The event marked the beginning of the Parkway’s 75th anniversary and the closure of the Smokies 75th anniversary.

“Just a word of wisdom, slow down and enjoy your year because it will go by very, very quickly,” Smokies Superintendent Dale Ditmanson said to Parkway Superintendent Phil Francis.

Cherokee is stationed between both parks, marking the southern-most entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway and eastern gateway to the Smokies. The ancestral heritage of Cherokee people is rooted in the mountains and scenery embodied by both national parks.

“Our DNA runs deep here,” said Perry Shell, a tribal council member. Archaeological excavations have shown 11,000 years of continuous occupation by the Cherokee.

The Parkway stretches from 469 miles from the Smokies to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, passing through 29 counties along its route and dozens of communities. The scenic drive attracts more than 17 million visitors every year.

When the Parkway was conceived in the 1930s, a great tug of war ensued over where the Parkway would go. Tennessee hoped to route the Parkway through Knoxville and Gatlinburg. Asheville — along with Waynesville, Maggie Valley and Cherokee — would have missed out on the $2.3 billion economic impact the Parkway has today.

The Parkway is a tourism engine, responsible for 27,000 jobs and $508 million in payroll in the state.

“Certainly our forefathers when they had the vision for the Parkway were right on target. It has done exactly what they intended it to do,” said Lynn Minges, director of the N.C. Division of Tourism.

Much like the region fought to secure the corridor past its doorstep 75 years ago, it must rally today to protect the Parkway, said N.C. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill.

“How can we preserve the national treasure we have here for future generations?” Rapp said. Rapp said the viewsheds are integral to the Parkway experience and must be protected.

Parkway Superintendent Phil Francis echoed the theme.

“The Parkway didn’t happen without a lot of support from a lot of people,” Francis said. “To preserve the Parkway for future generations will take all of us working together.”

The torch was passed from the Eastern Band to the Smokies superintendent, then to the Parkway superintendent, and finally back to two Cherokee children.

“The future of the Parkway is in your hands,” Francis said to the youth.

Bo Taylor, a cultural heritage specialist with the tribe, reminded the crowd gathered at the overlook that the Cherokee connection with the land lives on.

“We are not the past, but the present as well. We are also the future. We are fortunate to have young people picking up our traditional ways,” Taylor said.

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