10 May A conversation with the superintendent of America’s most visited national park
Tips to enhance your next visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park
What U.S. location has more species of trees than all of Europe? Where have more than 1,000 species new to science been discovered? What was the most visited national park in 2018 with 11.4 million visitors? The salamander capital of the world is where?
You’re right if you answered Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the North Carolina/Tennessee border. Leading hundreds of staff and thousands of volunteers who watch over this national treasure is National Park Service Superintendent, Cassius Cash. We recently asked Cash to share his perspective on GSMNP and making your next visit the best it can be.
Wandering Rose Travels (WRT): If you could chat with a newcomer to Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), what would you want them to know?
Cash: Most people are not aware that Great Smoky Mountains National Park is among the most diverse ecosystems in the world. You can visit the same location multiple times and have a different experience, depending on the time of year or even just on the time of day.
Equally important is the park’s heritage and history. Visitors can see preserved churches, farm buildings and homes of European settlers and learn how they lived off this land before the national park was established.
GSMNP is also a great place to view wildlife. Our focus is “keeping the wild in wildlife.” Visitors can help by watching their trash and food scraps. You might think leaving an apple peel on the ground is harmless because it is biodegradable and will just go away. But did you know that bears can become habituated to food that humans eat? Just like the potato chip ad says, you can’t have just one. Once habituated, bears associate the apple peel with humans, which may pose a health and safety risk to other visitors on trails or even in campgrounds.
I would remind visitors to keep their distance from our animals. Regulations say park visitors must stay at least 150 feet from wildlife. Some of our visitors have never been in national park and seeing an elk or bear can be a life-changing event. Some people want to become one with nature and lose perspective that these are wild animals. That worries us. I want to get the word out how to have a good time while staying safe and respecting the animals.
WRT: What’s your advice to help visitors get the fullest possible experience during their visit to GSMNP?
Cash: People look for different adventures. Discovering the park by car is the experience that some people want. Others want to hike 5-6 miles for a vista more beautiful than anything they’ve ever seen. Active and passive users both have their place. Our visitor centers are a great resource for making the most of your Great Smokies visit. Park staff and volunteers can assess your wishes and capability and recommend hikes or drives or places to spot wildlife.
Trip planning plays a major role in the experience. This is not a city park where you get off on a trail and see where it takes you. Many people come to the park unprepared, making their visit uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. If you want to hike, have trail maps, proper shoes and water. Recognize how elevation plays a role in temperature and be prepared for rain. If you don’t have the right gear and understanding, your visit can become dangerous.
Every year people become lost in the park’s backcountry. It’s the reason I stress hiking with a map. Let people know where you are going and when you are expected back. How quickly we mount a missing hiker search can determine life and death.
Hiking accidents happen. You can’t prevent that. Twisted ankles are a usual case. Most accidents happen because hikers end up where they should not be. Or their gear is improper. People overexert themselves. They may come to the park with a goal of repeating a difficult hike they did years ago and along the trail their body reminds them they are not 21 anymore.
WRT: What things surprise people the most about GSMNP?
Cash: The park’s level of biodiversity. Some 1,000 species new to science have been found here. We have more tree species than all of Europe. The park includes habitats representing north Georgia to Maine. We’re called the salamander capital of the world. People are fascinated when they hear these things. All this is within an eight-hour drive for half the U.S. population.
WRT: What makes you proudest about GSMNP?
Cash: Our employees and volunteers. I wish visitors could meet and have conversations with them. Several employees have been here 30-plus years and many volunteers have given this park over 15,000 hours of their time.
They are here because they cannot envision themselves anywhere else. No matter how underfunded the park is, they still give 110 percent.
The National Park Service (NPS) is America’s storyteller. We’re making a Herculean effort to build the next generation of national park supporters and advocates. We brag about being the most visited national park, but I think the measure for our next century of service will be measured by “who” is visiting the Smokies. We strive for a diversity of users. We educate people in urban areas to understand what a national park visit does for the soul and mind. We bring school kids from nearby Knoxville and Asheville into the park for educational experiences. Many of these kids have never been to the Smokies even though they live close by. We teach them how to have a great experience in an unfamiliar environment. You can start small and work to bigger goals: Go to city park; then plan a day hike and perhaps work up to an overnight experience. We encourage students to commit to a relationship with the outdoors. Our rangers have great success working with schools.
We talk a lot about biodiversity, but human diversity is important also. We teach about the early European settlers and Native Americans who lived off the land and we are expanding our story about African Americans who lived in the park. Most people don’t know the park contains several African American burial sites.
WRT: What role does NPS staff play in enhancing the visitor experience and how can people take advantage of that?
Cash: Everyone in green and gray has their role in enhancing a visitor’s experience. Our people don’t care whether they are giving interpretative talk or emptying the trash. We take pride in providing service at the highest level. We engage people on multiple issues: How to find the best trail; where the bathroom is; or tips on viewing the park by car.
When we ask staff, “Why did you become a park ranger,” nine out of 10 go back to a national park family vacation from their youth. They remember encountering a park ranger and that experience sparked an interest. As park staff, you never know if you just spawned that aspiration in a young person that leads them to a career with the National Park Service.
WRT: What park visitor behavior frustrates you?
Cash: We spend an enormous amount of money paying people to pick up litter. Visitors can help us utilize our limited staff resources more efficiently by not littering. Hikers remember: if you pack it in, pack it out.
Feeding wildlife has consequences. Bear becomes habituated to the food and lose their fear of humans. We unfortunately have to put those bears down if they later become a threat to visitors, because they are simply trying to replicate an experience from a previous visitor feeding them. I have to believe that no one wants to see these icons of the Great Smokies put down. The consequences of that one marshmallow lingers long after you are gone.
WRT: Unlike most national parks, there is no entrance fee for GSMNP. What are some options if a visitor wants to contribute to the park?
Cash: A couple of organizations come to mind; first, The Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains (FOTS), our philanthropic arm for the park, has donated to the park more than $65 million over 25 years. FOTS mission is to preserve and protect the Smokies by raising funds and public awareness. Anyone interested in contributing to park projects can reach out to them for more information. The other organization that supports the park with research and educational needs is the Great Smoky Mountains Association (GSMA). GSMA supports the scientific, historical and interpretive activities of the park. And we’ve received more than $30 million from the GSMA. Without the support from these two organizations, we could not get as much done as we do.
GSMNP is at a disadvantage because we don’t collect entrance fees. Our workforce is down 20 percent in recent years because rising inflation cost, while the park’s visitation has climbed 25 percent. The inflation cost reduces our spending power on average by $300,000 annually. That equates to 3 to 4 positions a year. Parks that are experiencing the same financial and visitation realities, are, for the most part, able to offset their “erosion of the base” with the entrance fees collected.
WRT: What activities do you wish your rangers had more time for?
Cash: More interpretative talks. Some campgrounds have amphitheatres where we used to host fireside chats. I would have more people in law enforcement to help manage increased vehicle traffic. More people in visitor centers. More people in the field looking at the health of park and the impact of invasive insects and plants. Currently there are hundreds of thousands of dead hemlock trees in the park, victims of an invasive insect. Through research and science we are slowing or stopping this insect from damaging our trees. We want to keep this park the way people remember it when they were a child.
WRT: How many staff and volunteers operate GSMNP?
Cash: 180-185 permanent staff; 80-85 temporary summer staff; 2,800 volunteers and 20-25 internships.
WRT: As park superintendent, what keeps you up at night?
Cash: The safety of my staff. Preventing employee injuries keeps me up at night. We send staff out to start their day with the instruction, “make sure you always go home the way you came.” Our team has a lot of exposure to danger. For example, the National Park Service has lost employees at other parks by being struck by vehicles during roadside mowing operations. We have that same exposure here at the Smokies in addition to other risks like repairing old historic structures. This sort of work requires construction equipment and different types of machinery, which is potentially hazardous. We’re big on requiring that proper personal protection equipment is used every time. Little things add up. I am always striving to stay ahead of the curve. You can’t lose focus, even for a moment.
WRT: If you had more budget, what would your priorities be?
Cash: More rangers and more maintenance employees to take care of facilities. Due to heavy use, the shelf life of our infrastructure is much shorter than less used facilities. We have deferred maintenance on projects totalling $235 million. We are self sufficient within the park. This includes roofs, paint, water and wastewater systems, roads, signs, you name it. It is like running a city, with 11 million people coming in it each year.
In 2016, 300 million people visited a U.S. national park. That’s more than attend NFL, NBA, MLB, NASCAR and Disney put together. And we manage those parks on the same budget as the city of Austin, Texas.
WRT: As superintendent with a lot of administrative duties, what do you do to simply relax and enjoy nature?
Cash: I like to hike. Depending on the trail, sometimes hiking here can feel like you are in the most visited park. But those times I am looking for solitude, I can find it. With 845 miles of trail, it’s easy to explore less traveled routes.
We appreciate the time, knowledge and thoughts Cassius Cash shared with us. Let’s all do our part to be good stewards of our parks. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a true treasure to be respected in its history, science, beauty, wildlife, and in its future.