A 75th celebration

Will the new president come to wish Smokies a ‘Happy Birthday?

Millions come to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park every year. This year, 2009, will certainly be no exception as the park prepares to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the official proclamation that gave birth to the park.

The question on many’s mind this year, however, is whether one of those millions will come to the Smokies and do what no one has done since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Will President Barack Obama be only the second sitting president in history to visit, following in the footsteps of FDR?

The invitation has been sent. For now, it’s wait and see.

Park spokesman Bob Miller said the dedication event is the fifth in a year-long series of celebrations in 2009. The fifth event in the Park is Sept. 2, which is the date President Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to the park to dedicate it in 1940. “We’re looking at a big event at Newfound Gap with major dignitaries,” Miller said.

Miller said the Park Service hasn’t heard whether incoming President Barack Obama will attend.

“If President Obama were to come, he would be the first sitting president to visit the Smokies since FDR,” Miller said. “President Bush had planned to come here in 2005 and got rained out.”

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the state line between North Carolina and Tennessee.

Just as Park visitors pass from one state into the other, the theme for the Park’s 75th anniversary pays homage to the past while looking toward the future.

“We’re looking forward to this event this year. The overall arching theme of the 75th anniversary is celebrating the past and securing the future,” Miller said.

“We’re giving recognition to individuals and families who gave up property during the creation of the park. There was lots of sacrifice that went into the creation of the park. People had to give up land -- some grudgingly and some willingly. In all, 6,000 tracts of land were bought to create this park. Certainly some lives were disrupted. We wanted to recognize those people.”

Miller said the anniversary events would also recognize the hard work done to raise money to buy the tracts of land necessary for the Park. There was $5 million raised by the two states - $2 million by appropriation from both North Carolina and Tennessee. “That was a lot of money in 1920,” he said. “Another $1 million was raised by civic groups and individuals. Each county agreed to provide a certain amount of funding. That made up the $5 million raised that was then matched by John D. Rockefeller to purchase the land.”

Miller said Rockefeller got involved because he was a supporter of protecting old growth forests. Rockefeller has a broad legacy of supporting parks. He funded much of Arcadia and Grand Teton national parks and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Miller said.

“There were still remnants of old growth forests, and he felt it was worthy of preservation. His only request was that it be done in memory of his mother, Laura Spellman Rockefeller, and that a plaque be erected to that effect,” Miller said. “There is such a plaque at the Tennessee/North Carolina state line.”

Events for the anniversary also will celebrate the tremendous amount of hard work on the part of park employees and the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC was a public works program for young men created by the Roosevelt administration. “They had a major contribution in terms of building trails, roads, bridges and campgrounds. They have a rich legacy here,” Miller said.

Miller said Park supporters and officials will use the anniversary as an opportunity to generate awareness of issues the park faces such as air quality challenges, non-native species, aging infrastructure and operational needs.

“We want to generate support for future stewardship,” he said. “We look forward to engaging people in that process as much as we can.”

An anniversary website is already getting a lot of traffic, said Miller. The site, www.greatsmokies75th.org, provides information about the CCC, a history of the Smokies long before the Park’s creation, the evolution of the Park idea in surrounding communities and milestones along the way toward its creation and development of the park. “Also on the website is a photo gallery where we invite people to send in and post up family pictures through the decades,” Miller said.

Miller said the website also will provide links to activities in surrounding communities - three in North Carolina and three in Tennessee - that are in addition to the activities in the park. These activities, said Miller, are consistent with the 75th anniversary message dealing with culture, history, natural resources and natural topics.

For example, Miller said activities outside the Park such as the Old Timers Day in Townsend would be integrated into the yearlong anniversary celebration because the Park is so integrated in the communities surrounding the National Park.

Inside the Park, the major activities planned are:

April 19 to 26: A proclamation by the governors of Tennessee and North Carolina is set for late April in the National Park Week, April 19 to 26.

“Basically it is an event that will be the kick off for tourism events in surrounding communities for the year,” Miller said.

June 13, 14 and 15: The actual “birthday” is June 15. “The actual signing of the parks’ enabling legislation that established the National Park was signed June 15, 1934,” Miller explained. Events are planned for June 13-15 in each of the Park’s three major visitor’s areas.

Of those three events, the Saturday, June 13, event in Cades Cove has created the most excitement. The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra will perform in the Cove, near Cable Mill.

“We’re working with the KSO to provide tickets in terms of a car pass system,” said Miller. “Cades Cove is a tough place to do business because there isn’t any infrastructure and parking is limited. We’re going to be able to issue some number of vehicle passes consistent with number of we can hold. We’re probably looking at between 1,500 and 2,000 cars, which could end up being between 4,000 to 8000 people.”

Miller said the number of people at the event isn’t the real issue. It’s the parking.

“Parking is our major stick-point. On the anniversary website, we’ll put up the process people need to do to get car passes. By the end of January we’ll have it on the website,” he said. “The passes will be sold through the KSO ticket system, and it will be a very modest cost compared with usual symphony tickets.”

On June 14 the Park Service will hold an open house at Sugarlands Visitor’s Center. “We’ll showcase the park operation,” Miller said. Aspects of the operation include wildlife management, engineering tasks like road improvements and dealing with the hemlock woolly adelgid, a non-native insect that is attacking Eastern hemlock trees in the Park. “Everything the park does will be showcased during the open house,” he said. “That will be at the headquarters near Gatlinburg.”

On June 15, the third day, is the anniversary of the dedication of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center at the Cherokee entrance to the Park. “The two big visitor centers are Cherokee and Gatlinburg. We actually have a groundbreaking scheduled for the new visitor’s center at Cherokee that will take place at that event,” Miller said.

The new visitor’s center will be funded by the Great Smoky Mountains Association, the non-profit entity that runs all park bookstores. They’ll pay more than $500,000 for the building and exhibits. “The current center is a 1,400 square foot building that was built in the 1940s as a ranger station,” Miller said. “It’s nowhere near the size it needs to be to host the number of visitors coming into the Park today.”

The last event is the Sept. 2 celebration of the dedication of the Park at Newfound Gap.

Preparing for the Year

In terms of preparing, Miller said a team was set up within the Park to deal with all the planning and invitations. Another team deals with security aspects. “There will be law enforcement doing security and parking and traffic management,” he said. “Facilities management will deal with staging and generators and portable toilets and all support facilities you need for a big event.”

Miller said people with different specialties are involved in the planning team. “We’re having monthly meetings and, on our end, we’re working through publicity aspects with the media and sending invitations to dignitaries,” he said.

Regarding publicity, the National Park got a commitment from Dolly Parton to be an ambassador for the Park.

“That was a big surprise. We got to thinking, if we wanted to raise awareness of this event across the country, who could best be our ambassador to the nation? Dolly Parton was more than willing to do it,” he said. “She has done a series of public service announcements that will run in local media.”

When the Park announced Parton was their ambassador, Park staff went to Google to do an Internet search to gauge the reaction. The news of her announcement popped up in publications from Knoxville to Singapore. “There were thousands of hits all over the country and world. She got recognized for making the Park anniversary as one of her causes for the year,” Miller said.

One annual event Parton is promoting is the Evergreen Ball on Jan. 23 at the Knoxville Convention Center. The Friends of the Smokies, a non-profit organization that supports the work of the Park, is organizing the event. “It’s a black tie event that starts at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $200 a piece. It’s a quality event and is the single largest fundraiser the Friends of the Smokies do each year -- one of our signature events.”

The website for the event is www.evergreenball.org.

Miller said the state is also getting behind the anniversary celebrations. “The Tennessee Department of Tourism has committed to making our 75th anniversary their flagship event for the year,” he said. “All promotional events of theirs will focus on the Parks 75th anniversary. We will get a lot of synergy from that effort.”

Investing at home

Herb Handly, vice president of the Smoky Mountain Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, said the bureau invested $10,075 as a full sponsor in the anniversary celebrations for the National Park. The money goes toward developing programming for the 75th anniversary, he said.

“The reason we invested in it was that we felt like it was the right thing to do. The National Park has made great contributions to all gateway communities, including Townsend. If it weren’t for National Park, Townsend probably would not be what it is today,” he said. “We felt like it was a great marketing opportunity for the Visitors Bureau. The 75th anniversary will be promoted throughout the nation. We didn’t want to miss the opportunity to put our name on it.”

Handly said many of the events that have been traditional in Townsend, for example the Townsend in the Smokies Spring Festival and the Fall Heritage Festival and Old Timers Day, celebrate the culture and heritage of the area, which includes the National Park.

“Many of the people who live in Townsend and surrounding areas and Walland and Blount County had family ties with Cades Cove,” he said. “This is a great time to celebrate those and showcase those family connections to Cades Cove. This is a great time to share the stories of the Appalachian heritage.”

Handly said the KSO event in Cades Cove would be special. “We certainly want to be a part of that. They did that about 10 or 15 years ago, and it was an absolutely marvelous experience for people who were able to attend,” he said. “We would like to see that repeated again in 2009. We’re going to be one of the sponsors for that.”

Handly said the bureau expects the 75th anniversary will attract a lot of visitors who might not normally come to the Park. He said that while the spring and fall festivals, which showcase Appalachian music, crafts and food, will pay tribute to the Park’s 75th anniversary, new events such as the Winter Heritage Festival on Feb. 5 - 8 also will highlight the Park’s anniversary.

The Winter Heritage Festival is a celebration of the human history of the area. “We have lots of programs going on Feb 5 - 8. It will be talks, tours and demonstrations,” he said.

Special guests such as Sam Venable, Charles Manard and Dr. Boyce Driskell with the University of Tennessee will speak. Driskell was very much involved in the archeological dig done in 1999 in Townsend. Great Smoky Mountains National Park superintendent Dale Ditmanson also will speak at the Winter Heritage Festival, and there will be exhibits, talks and tours of Cades Cove, along with musical performances and guided hikes.

Word is spreading about the Park’s anniversary, Handly said. “People are now asking about this 75th anniversary, and the events surrounding it. Any time the phone starts ringing, we know there is a lot of interest,” Handly said. “Basically we think the word is getting out, and people are calling in wanting to know more about it.”

Townsend and Cades Cove, and all of Blount County are a part of the celebration, Handly said. “It all celebrates 75 years of the National Park being in our community.”

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