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Parks in 2005

Nature’s lessons

A $105,000 grant from North Carolina’s GlaxoSmithKline Foundation to Friends of the Smokies will connect several hundred teachers in North Carolina with the resources of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park over the next four years.

The program will give teachers hands-on science discovery in the park by involving them in research projects that they can share with students in the classroom. The grant will support at least four training modules each year for 80 to 100 teachers from throughout North Carolina.

Quit that racket

The General Accounting Office launched an investigation this year into why the Federal Aviation Administration was dragging its feet on a new law that would help protect national parks from excessive helicopter and prop plane flightseeing tours.

Individual parks have no say in flight seeing over the parks as decisions are left entirely up to the FAA. Five years ago, Congress passed a law requiring the FAA to work with national parks to develop acceptable flight-seeing plans — such as making certain areas off-limits during important breeding times for rare species or imposing height restrictions around scenic waterfalls — but the FAA failed to do so.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has begun to see increased, albeit still small, flight-seeing activity. Shortly after the GAO began looking into the FAA’s hold-up in getting started on the new cooperation with parks, the FAA held a meeting in Gatlinburg with park officials, signaling the Smokies could be among the first in line for flightseeing rules, possibly as early as 2006.

Making in-roads

The National Park Service signed a five-year agreement with the International Mountain Biking Association that could open hundreds of dirt roads in national parks across the country to mountain biking.

Mountain biking has not been considered an accepted form of recreation in national parks. Two parks will be selected for pilot projects. Mountain bikers and park officials will work together to identify areas within the park that could be suitable for mountain biking.

Friendly parks

The long-time assistant superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was appointed superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Francis, who was generally admired and well liked by rangers in the Smokies, is uniquely equipped to forge an increased spirit of cooperation between the Smokies and the Parkway. The two national park units share the same mission of teaching visitors about the ecology and culture in the Southern Appalachians, as well as sharing the same environmental threats.

Directing traffic

The Blue Ridge Parkway approved plans to build a visitor center outside Asheville that will not only provide information on the Parkway, but act as a tourist outpost for all of Western North Carolina.

The new center will include high-tech, interactive exhibits about the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the natural and human history of the region. The center will also provide information on things to see and do in communities along the Parkway. So far, $4 million of the $10 million price tag has been secured from Congress with the help of U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor, R-Brevard.

Yuck!

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was dealt a blow by National Geographic Traveler magazine. The park ranked in the “Rock Bottom” category by 300 panelists conducting a national park scorecard for the magazine, coming in 54 of 55 parks.

Panelists used the adjectives “horrible,” “appalling,” and “distasteful” to describe the gateway towns of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Cherokee, citing an abundance of “theme parks, outlets, and billboards.”

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