The crowd that packed the Ruby Tuesday Lodge Sept. 4 enjoyed good conversation, shared stories and ate delicious food.
But it wasn’t the food, company or surroundings that brought them together. It was the beautiful mountains looming in the distance that joined their hearts, energy and opened their pocketbooks for the second annual Neighbors in the Foothills reception. The event benefits Friends of the Smokies.
Friends of the Smokies president Jim Hart said the response to the first Blount County event in 2007 “was just spectacular.”
Hart said that while some maybe tempted to take the Smokies for granted, many in Blount County appreciate the National Park. “I have a sense they appreciate it. It’s evident by the number of Friends of the Smokies license plates we sell just in Knox, Sevier and Blount counties,” he said. “It’s the most popular plate in the state.”
Natalie Haslam of Knoxville is a Friends of the Smokies board member. She and husband, Jim, founder of Pilot Corp., came to the Blount County event. Natalie Haslam said the mountains in East Tennessee are one of the state’s greatest resources and preserving the mountains “is something everyone can do. We need everybody,” she said. “It’s going to take each and every one of us.”
Bob Miller, management assistant with the National Park Service said Friends of the Smokies has made a huge difference in helping preserve the park. For example, he said, “Friends put $1.1 million into suppressing the wooly adelgid.”
Miller said the Friends of the Smokies also help with other projects such as cleaning up trails and fixing or building bridges for hikers. “In every area of operations, they’ve made a difference,” he said.
The organization helps with funding but it also helps by raising the public awareness of challenges facing in the park, Miller said.
Bob Lash said the National Park is an underused resource right in his back yard. The National Park is something he wants to help preserve and protect forever. “I grew up running around in that park,” he said.
Brenda Sellers said the event is worth supporting. “I think it’s a good cause. There are a lot of great people here who support this,” she said.
Herb Handly, vice president of the Smoky Mountains Convention and Visitors Bureau, came with a big check in hand, donating $10,000 to Friends of the Smokies to help underwrite the park’s 75th anniversary celebration in 2009.
“The National Park Service provides a tremendous amount of economic impact here in this area. The National Park provides $650,000 million in economic impact for surrounding counties. As a result, we feel we needed to invest back into the National Park for what they do for us,” he said.
Handly said the anniversary will attract more people to the area who would normally not come to the National Park. This money could be used in marketing to those individuals, he said.
Maryville Mayor Joe Swann said the individuals gathered at Ruby Tuesday Lodge are known for giving back to the community. “We’re pleased to help with this. The effect of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on our lives and community is enormous,” he said. “It has made our lives so much better.”
Hart said working with Friends of the Smokies is easy in this area because so many people appreciate the National Park. While this is the second year for Blount’s Neighbors in the Foothills, the organizations has been raising funds to help with expenses related to maintaining the trails since 1993, and they’ve raised $24 million since then.
Dale Ditmanson, park superintendent, said that while the Park is officially 75 years old, federal officials first started talking about it years earlier. “It took five years of just talking,” he said. “All total, it was 90 years ago. There were a lot of private conversations.”
The Rockefeller Foundation put up $5 million toward purchasing the property with the stipulation that North Carolina and Tennessee match the amount. “What you have today is a continuation of a legacy of stewardship,” he said.
Fred Law’s family is from property that became the National Park. He said he grew up hiking in the Smokies, and his family still enjoys the mountains. “”We’ve had great experiences there,” he said.
His own children enjoyed the trails at an early age. “Before they could walk, they were riding on my shoulders taking in a lot of good hikes and good memories,’ he said as his wife, Vicki Law, stood by him. The Laws have two children, Adam and Amanda.
Jack Williams, a board member of Friends of the Smokies, has been involved with the organization since it started and has helped with fund raising.
“There’s so many people throughout Tennessee, Ohio, Georgia and Florida who love the Smoky Mountains. It’s a great resource,” he said.
State Rep. Doug Overbey said he’s been a supporter of Friends of the Smokies for a long time. “It’s important for private community groups to step forward to do projects that right now the government can’t afford to do,” he said.