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Nature Tourism > Why Nature Tourism: Benefits > Case Study - The Great Smoky Mountains

Case Studies:
Integrating Conservation and Tourism in the Great Smoky Mountains

Adapted from: The Role of Protected Areas in Sustainable Forest Management, By John D. Peine, Ph.D.

Southern Appalachian Setting

The Land
The Appalachian region is dominated by a very old mountain range that begins in the
state of Alabama and extends into the northeastern U.S. and Canada. The highly varied topography in the southern Appalachians results in many different climates. The plants and wildlife found within this region are of global significance as reflected by the Great Smoky Mountain National Park being designated as both a World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve.

Land Composition and Ownership in the Great Smoky Mountains Region

10.5 million hectares temperate forest

  • 17% evergreen
  • 16% mixed
  • 75% of lands – private ownership
  • ± 20% of lands – National Forest/Parks
  • 3% of lands - state or other federal

Socioeconomic background: from BOOM to BUST
During the depression of the 1930s, the federal government obtained large blocks of
privately held land. Thousands of people were displaced from their homes. Farmlands were taken by the Tennessee Valley Authority for construction of water and power reservoirs and dams. The timber and mining industries came into the area in the latter portion of the 19th century and extracted the old-growth timber and large quantities of coal. Company towns sprang up throughout the region. Despite the massive economic boom, the region has remained one of the nation's largest geographic areas experiencing serious poverty. When the two primary economic engines of timber and coal declined, little sustainable economic diversity remained to fill the void. As a result, the quality and diversity of public services remains substandard in many isolated communities throughout the region.

Roles for Protected Areas
As the scale and type of the human interactions and impacts with native ecosystems and communities continues to dramatically change, the role of protected natural areas and biological reserves becomes critically important. Key roles for these protected areas briefly discussed below reflect a variety of human values ranging from stewardship of the natural environment to utility of natural resource consumption. These values are amplified when the landscape is dominated privately owned lands. Major protected areas in this region include: two national parks, six national forests and numerous smaller state and private parks and reserves. Actions associated with promoting cooperative ecosystem management among 10 federal and four state government agencies in the region are coordinated by the Southern Appalachian Man and Biosphere Cooperative (SAMAB).

Gateway Communities to Protected Areas
The interface between public and private land ownership is of particular interest in areas where communities may serve as gateways to protected lands. Such communities are likely to have economies closely tied or dependent on natural resource based tourism and/or renewable resource extraction. Potential problems and opportunities exist along this zone of interface ranging from unappealing entryways and traffic congestion to growing demands on community health and enforcement services primarily due to growing tourist numbers and activities.

In the southern Appalachians, as elsewhere in the U.S. there is a growing movement at the community level to define goals for sustainability as related to the community, the environment and economic development. Several communities are in the process of adopting sustainability indicators and benchmarks for these dimensions.

Case Study:
In the case of Pittman Center, Tennessee (population 478), a world-famous gateway community in the Great Smoky Mountains, the residents have dedicated their community to "preserving our mountain heritage." This vision statement is proudlydisplayed on wooden entryway signs into the community. They have taken steps to control development on steep slopes, ridge tops, wetlands, flood plains and agricultural lands. They are planning development of an urban trail and greenway system. Design standards for commercial buildings, roadways and parking lots are under consideration. The community is a largely undeveloped area adjacent to the Greenbriar watershed, one of the least-developed sections of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Regional Tourism and/or Conservation Issues and Opportunities:

Source of renewable resources
Protected areas serve as a repository for numerous sustainable resources such as water, wood fiber, native vegetation and plant species, fish, wildlife and other open space and recreation related resources. As privately owned land use conversion escalates, the demand for these resources will escalate as well.

Sense of place
Perhaps the least quantifiable but of the greatest social significance is the role that protected areas play in defining a sense of place. Relatively undisturbed "natural areas" provide a place where a growing number of people can "get back to nature" and experience a respite from the day-to-day human dominated environment. Another manifestation of these values is a sense of spirituality or mental well being associated with protected areas. As the global trend continues toward an urbanized society, the importance of this role increases.

These intrinsic values of natural resources can be expressed in economic terms. Nature-based tourism, for instance, is one of the fastest growing sectors of that industry. Land values adjacent to protected areas tend to be of higher value. People are relocating, particularly in their retirement years, to be in close proximity to protected areas. These quality-of-life factors are important to attract economic development as well.

Other landscape conservation related issues

Migratory birds are important to the economy and more
People love to view, hear and feed songbirds, many species of which are migrants. In some parts of the southern Appalachians, up to eighty percent of the breeding bird community is comprised of neo-tropical migratory species. Declines of many of these species have been documented in recent times. The old growth forests within the Great Smoky Mountains provide an opportunity to study habitat preferences of these species under various forest structure and composition.

Management of a large carnivore: American black bear
The black bear population was severely depleted at the turn of the 20th century in this region due primarily to hunting pressure and loss of habitat. With the reforestation of the region and regulation of hunting, the species has experienced a dramatic recovery.

Species recovery
Protected forests provide an opportunity to reintroduce extirpated species.
Black bear, wild turkey, beaver and whitetail deer populations have recovered in the Applachians due to habitat improvement, hunting regulation and reintroduction efforts.

Fire management: prescribed burning
In the southern Appalachians, fire has generally been suppressed for the last 80 years. The result has been a dramatic reduction in fire associated plant communities. In this region the U.S. Forest Service began prescribed burning practices in the 1980s, a practice later followed by the National Park Service. Maintaining tree species composition in pine and mixed forest stands and providing habitat for wildlife are primary goals.


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