Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Yeah, But When You Get Down To It the Grand Canyon's Not Much More Than a Big Hole in the Ground...

Great Smoky Mountains National Park rates poorly in magazine survey
"[In this issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine] three-hundred experts graded the condition of 55 North American national parks and the cities that surround them. Problems like traffic, haze and invasive species landed the Smokies in the "Rock Bottom" category."
I can see what they're saying here. Coal-fired plants, combined with car exhaust, commercial industry and the natural topography of the region have produced a nasty, anti-natural haze that continues to threaten not only the beauty of the area but also the safety of the flora and health of all that breathe the air. That's man's problem, and more specifically men and women that live in East Tennessee/Western North Carolina/SE Virginia.

Invasive species we can't do a whole lot about, but I would imagine if there was less problem with the pollution, there might be more time and resources freed up to deal with outsider plants like kudzu (or as Becky calls them, "broccoli") and Garlic Mustard, insects like balsam woolly adelgids or plant diseases such as Dutch Elm Disease.

However, that's not the only thing National Geographic took into account when rating our park poorly:

"The issues they brought up are all valid and are very worthy of discussion," says Leon Downey, who is director of tourism in Pigeon Forge. "A lot of discussion has gone into all the topics that they mentioned."

But Downey does take issue with some of the more scathing comments that refer to the gateway towns of Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and Cherokee as "horrible," "appalling" and "distasteful." He says Tourism has always been part of the plan.

"That was part of legislation that development Great Smoky Mountains National Park was that economic development would not occur primarily inside the park, but in the surrounding area around the park because it was an economically depressed area," Downey says."
We that live in East Tennessee have all visited the Great Smokey Mountains National Park dozens of times. And to get to the Park, you have to go through Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Townsend, and several other "gateway" towns. We've all made our little jokes about country hicks, and mountain living, and Dolly Parton and Dollywood being the poor man's Disneyworld and all that. No, Pigeon Forge is no Las Vegas and Gatlinburg is not Vail - there is a tackiness that pervades small and large parts of all those places. But I continue to love driving through them, and enjoying them because they're what we are. They're a part of our culture, our community, and filled with people who are just like us - hard-working, friendly, (for the most part) courteous, often religious, down-home Southern mountain/valley folk. I love to visit Gatlinburg, personally, and have since I was a kid. It's a refreshing escape from life in Knoxville, and the beauty of the surrounding mountains is always appreciated.

But for the editors to call them "horrible," "appalling," or "distasteful shows me they may have driven through without stopping and meeting the people, getting to know the character of the natives whose ancestors lived and breathed in these same mountains for generations, and would take great exception to their characterizations. It smacks of snobbery and an elitism you often find in views of the South from other areas of the country.

Personally, I'd rather spend a week in Gatlinburg and the Smokeys than a month in some of these other parks on their list - I'll bet our folks are friendlier and more welcoming to visitors than 80-90% of the other parks. But I guess some folks will never find that out now, since we seem to be such a "horrible" place to visit.

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