Holly Kays

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The National Park Service is closed. 

Sort of. 

When the clock struck midnight on Dec. 22, 2018, the latest continuing budget resolution expired and the federal government’s failure to agree on a spending bill resulted in the suspension of all “non-essential” government services — including most services associated with operating the national parks. Of 24,681 National Park Service employees nationwide, only 3,298 are working during the shutdown, with just 326 for the entire Southeast region. 

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It’s just after 11 a.m. on a weekday, and while a road sign at the Cherokee entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park alerts travelers “All facilities closed for govt shutdown,” visitors are still arriving. 

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Quarter-cent sales tax money in Jackson County will be available sooner and in greater quantities than previously planned due to a $2 million grant the county received for the Southwestern Community College Health Sciences Building and a decision to take out a 20-year loan for the project rather than a 15-year loan. 

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An alarming decrease in the population of ginseng on Cherokee tribal land is prompting the tribe to look at cracking down on ginseng theft. 

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Randy Eaton isn’t a fortune teller, but the Western Carolina University athletic director sees a winning future for WCU teams. 

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Steve Kemp moved to the Great Smoky Mountains in 1987 for what would become a 30-year career with the Great Smoky Mountains Association, and following his 2017 retirement GSMA is looking to honor his contributions to the organization through a new writer’s residency. 

“There is a specific skill in writing in a way that engages the reader and inspires curiosity and passion in the reader, and that’s what we want to be able to cultivate,” said Laurel Rematore, executive director of GSMA, “because we’re in the business of helping people to connect with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, connect on an emotional level so they will take care of it.”

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Developing policies to help business owners affected by the upcoming N.C. 107 road project will go on the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority’s backburner until more project details are known, Executive Director Dan Harbaugh said during the board’s Dec. 18 meeting.

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An ordinance seeking to broaden the ability to protest decisions of Tribal Council is under discussion, with Tribal Council narrowly voting to table it when it was introduced during a Dec. 6 meeting. 

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After months of work sessions, tabled votes and debate, Cherokee has an updated election law. 

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From the depths of winter to the height of summer, valley agriculture to mountain exploration, longtime mountain dwellers to new arrivals, a year in Western North Carolina’s great outdoors can provide a lifetime of stories. In 2018, The Smoky Mountain News covered everything from conservation to kudzu, encountering plenty of colorful characters along the way. Here’s a selection of the best quotes we heard this year, about the mountains and from those who love them. 

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The year is nearly over, but in 2018 the Graham County Rescue Squad has run only three search and rescue calls in the thousands of acres of national forest land surrounding Robbinsville. 

“We probably used to run three or four times that, just about all of them in Joyce Kilmer Slickrock,” said Marshall McClung, search and rescue coordinator for the squad. “Mostly in the Joyce Kilmer section, a few in the Slickrock section.”

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The Community Table in Sylva will get a new roof to the tune of $18,000 after Town of Sylva and Jackson County commissioners voted unanimously to contribute to the project. 

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The homeless shelter in Jackson County is full up with a waiting list 12 deep, shelter managers told Jackson County Commissioners at a Dec. 11 work session.

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The Cherokee Tribal Council took the first step toward dissolving the Qualla Housing Authority with a resolution passed Thursday, Dec. 6. 

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Sylva commissioners voted Dec. 13 to remove former mayor and longtime Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority board member Brenda Oliver from TWSA, citing a desire for “fresh” and “out-of-the-box” ideas on the board. 

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Sylva got some good news about the creek that runs straight through its heart at a Nov. 8 town meeting. 

Scotts Creek has been on the state’s list of impaired waterways since 2008, continually testing above acceptable levels for fecal coliform bacteria, a group that includes dangerous pathogens like E. coli. Aside from implications for the health of the aquatic ecosystem, high concentrations of such bacteria can make streams unsafe to boat, wade or otherwise recreate in. 

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Western Carolina University students will likely see only a modest increase to their cost of attendance following the Board of Trustees’ approval of tuition and fee levels for 2019-20.

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Snow and ice caused the Asheville Design Center to cancel a planned public hearing on the N.C. 107 project in Sylva, but the meeting has been rescheduled for 4 to7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 14, in the Community Room of the Jackson County Public Library in Sylva. 

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Just over a year after opening its doors at a new location, Caney Fork General Store is closed, though likely only temporarily. 

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Efforts to overhaul Cherokee’s election ordinance will come down to the wire following Tribal Council’s unanimous decision to table a vote on the legislation at its meeting Thursday, Dec. 6.

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For centuries and even millennia, the early spring greens of the sochan plant have served as a celebration of spring for the Cherokee people. If a proposal now out for public comment meets approval, in a few months tribal members could hold that celebration with greens harvested in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

“Our culture is not linear. It’s more circular, and going back to places like the park, to where we once inhabited and lived and collected, it takes on a different meaning of spirituality,” said Tommy Cabe, forest resource specialist for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and a sochan gatherer himself. “It takes on a different meaning of who we are as Cherokee.”

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The Jackson County commissioners said goodbye to a longtime member, welcomed a new member and changed their meeting schedule during an organizational meeting Monday, Dec. 3. 

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Patrick Lambert was removed from office following a controversial impeachment process in 2017, but with the 2019 election season underway he’s saying that the impeachment shouldn’t stop him from running again. 

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A May blog post titled “Chairman Mao or is it Chairman Mau?” was the topic of an impassioned statement Jackson County Commissioner Ron Mau read during a Nov. 19 commissioners meeting.

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Dan Pittillo has made his name as a botanist, but he could easily have ended up a dairy farmer instead. 

Born in Henderson County the oldest of five, Pittillo entered the world in 1938, when the Great Depression was in full swing and people were used to not having much. For the first two years of his life his parents didn’t even have a house — the family lived with his grandparents while his father worked to build one. 

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A Sylva town meeting this month drew a crowd of people to speak against the N.C. 107 road plan, but before the public comment period began Nov. 8 Mayor Lynda Sossamon reminded attendees of a few ground rules. 

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With the N.C. 107 project continuing to move forward, the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority is beginning to talk about the part it could play in keeping affected businesses in Sylva. 

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The Michigan-based Christman Company will carry out a $17.66 million contract to construct a new health sciences building at Southwestern Community College in Sylva following a bid opening for the project Nov. 13.

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Cherokee has lost its second honored member in the space of a month with the Nov. 24 death of Amanda Swimmer, 97. 

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By late November, the trees at 5,000 feet are mostly bare, once-green leaves covering the forest floor like a brown blanket, obscuring the ground that had hosted all manner of wildflowers and shrubs and berries during the warmer months. 

Some people might describe the forest as dead or lifeless, but not those who know where to look. Paul Super, science coordinator for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is one of those people. Stationed up at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center at Purchase Knob, Super’s office is just a stone’s throw away from the Cataloochee Divide Trail and the upland forest surrounding it. 

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A plan to conserve more than 900 acres of high-elevation terrain in Jackson County will move forward after the Clean Water Management Trust Fund Board voted last week to award $1.5 million toward its protection. 

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A man claiming the courts misled him when accepting his guilty plea. A woman with a disability contending termination from her job amounted to unlawful discrimination. A man convicted of murder in 1976 arguing that new facts show that he is innocent. 

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When Rob Gasbarro and Cory McCall met in 2008, their friendship formed around hiking and biking the mountains surrounding Franklin, their weekdays filled by burgeoning careers in civil structural engineering and real estate, respectively. 

Then came the recession. Things got bad and then worse. By 2010, the careers that they’d planned to retire in, provide for families with, seemed headed for an early end. 

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For the second time in less than a month, an ordinance that would abolish the Qualla Housing Authority and place all Cherokee’s housing services under the Department of Housing and Community Development has been tabled. 

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Robust voter turnout and early voting enthusiasm made the difference in three Jackson County Board of Commissioners races, causing the board to flip from a Republican to a Democratic majority. 

If all goes as planned, Jackson County will spend $550,000 to buy the old Pepsi-Cola plant in Whittier, following a party-line vote Friday, Nov. 9. 

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The Sylva Town Board is considering who it should choose to replace Commissioner Harold Hensley on the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority Board when the calendar turns to 2019. 

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In 2008, the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation launched a new program aiming to get kids and families out exploring the high-elevation corridor. Ever since, the Kids in Parks program has mushroomed into a national endeavor with designated trails from San Diego, California, to Nags Head, North Carolina. 

Kids in Parks was recognized for its decade of accomplishments when it won the Youth Engagement Award at the SHIFT Festival in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The annual SHIFT Awards recognize individuals, initiatives and organizations that contribute to conservation through human-powered outdoor recreation. 

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The University of North Carolina Board of Governors has selected the man who could well be charged with nominating the next chancellor of Western Carolina University.

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A recent court ruling in Texas has Native American tribes across the country — including the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians — concerned about threats to their status as sovereign nations. 

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The Jackson County Board of Commissioners will flip to a Democratic majority following a hotly contested election in which three of the five seats appeared on the ballot.

Jackson County Sheriff Chip Hall will keep his job for another four years following a decisive victory on Election Day.

If a partnership between Jackson County and the Nantahala Area Southern Off Road Bicycle Association comes to fruition, kids in Cullowhee could soon have access to a new mountain biking track made specifically for them. 

“The county reached out to us saying that they had been hoping to build a bike park on that area in the greenway,” said J.P. Gannon, president of Nantahala SORBA and assistant professor of geology at Western Carolina University. “When we heard that we jumped on it and said, ‘We can make that happen if they want to have it happen.’”

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The Cherokee Tribal Council is considering disbanding the Qualla Housing Authority, an organization that was formed in 1993 to create and maintain housing for low-income tribal members. 

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When retired teacher Villa Brewer went to get her mail Oct. 23, she returned with two interesting letters. One was from the N.C. State Health Plan, reminding her that Oct. 31 is the deadline to change her health insurance plan during open enrollment. The second was from Harris Regional Hospital, stating that the hospital’s current contract with UnitedHealthCare — of which Brewer is a member — will end Jan. 1 unless Harris can negotiate better reimbursement rates from the insurer. 

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Western Carolina University students whose lives have been changed by the tuition reduction program N.C. Promise got to tell their stories to UNC System President Margaret Spellings during her visit to campus Wednesday, Oct. 24. 

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When UNC System President Margaret Spellings visited Cullowhee Wednesday, Oct. 24, the prevailing mood was celebratory and lighthearted as she lauded the success of the new tuition reduction program at Western Carolina University and congratulated student speakers on their accomplishments. But, within 48 hours of her return to Raleigh, Spellings would announce her resignation from the position she’d held for less than three years. 

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An effort is underway to make North Carolina’s 24 western counties into the next outdoor gear industry hub, and the far western region is poised to find itself at the epicenter of that wave. 

“We’ve already got tremendous momentum within the outdoor sector from the early work that’s been done to cultivate this sector,” said Matt Raker, director of community investments and impact for Asheville-based Mountain BizWorks. “A lot of that is rooted in our exceptional outdoor recreation assets we’ve got across the region, from Tsali to the new Fire Mountain Trails to the Tuckasegee and the Pigeon River Gorge, you name it — we could go on for a long time. That’s helped attract a lot of entrepreneurs and brands here, but they have some specific needs to be able to grow.”

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City Lights Café is a fixture in Sylva, a frequent stopping place for downtown workers in search of a cup of coffee, students looking for a place to snack and study or tourists needing a quick and healthy bite before continuing their exploration of Jackson County. 

Growing up in Germany as the daughter of a repair shop owner, Ute Grant knew three things about how her life should go: she never wanted to go to America, she never wanted to get married and she never wanted to be self-employed. But life has a way of showing up the firmest of convictions. 

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