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National Park Service Celebrates 100th Anniversary


The National Park Service is celebrating its 100-year anniversary this year. A century ago, the Park Service was created with the mission of protecting and preserving some of the most awe-inspiring places in the country. And at the same time, its mission is to help people who visit those places enjoy them, and that's not always an easy balance.

NPR's Nathan Rott has been reporting on this from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that's on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, and he's on the line now. Hey, Nate.


MCEVERS: So what are you up to?

ROTT: Well, I am spending a week here in Great Smokys, following around different people in different jobs in different parts of the Park Service as they do their jobs. It's the centennial of the National Park Service, like you said - and I stress service because it's not the centennial of Yosemite or Grand Canyon or even Great Smoky. It's the service, the organization and the people. So on that note, I want to play a little tape for you, OK?

MCEVERS: All right.

JENNIFER HALE: Hello, what can I help you out with?

ROTT: Trail recommendations.

HALE: OK, which one are you...

ROTT: ...All right, Kelly, so who do you think that person is that you're hearing there?

MCEVERS: Like, somebody who works at the information desk or -

ROTT: Yeah. Technically, her position is an interpreter. But I'll let her introduce herself.

HALE: My name is Jennifer Hale. I am a park ranger for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I staff the visitor center.

ROTT: OK, so if I told you or anyone to imagine a national park employee, Jennifer Hale is probably who you'd think of. She's literally the lady at the front desk - green cargo pants, brown shirt, that round Smokey bear-type hat. But for every Jennifer Hale, there are literally dozens of people working behind the scenes, as she likes to point out.

HALE: You've got the maintenance folks that are not front and center. You have the fire crew. You have the wildlife crew. You have the veg (ph) crew. You have the fisheries crew. So it takes that whole to make what we are.

MCEVERS: Veg crew? What's a veg crew?

ROTT: A veg crew is like foresters, right? They go around and they basically keep an eye on the health of the forest. They take care of invasive species, they keep the native plants healthy and they make it look as good as it does. And that's just one of the many, many jobs that are happening behind the scenes.

MCEVERS: All right, so why the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? I mean, why aren't you in Yosemite or Yellowstone?

ROTT: The barbecue's better here.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

ROTT: No. Really - you wouldn't guess it, but Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the country. There's nearly 11 million people that visited here last year, probably going to be more next year. And that's more than twice as many visitors as the next closest park, Grand Canyon. And what that means is that Great Smoky Mountains National Park is at the forefront of one of the biggest, if not the biggest, challenge facing the National Park Service, which is the loved to death syndrome.

How do you preserve and protect about a half-million acres of forest, waterways, bears, snakes, historic structures and on and on while allowing for 11 million people to enjoy it? Those are the two goals of the Park Service, and they're kind of contradictory. So I want to play you a little more tape I got a few days ago because I think it illustrates that point.

OK, so we're on a road in the park. There's a few dozen people gathered around, taking pictures of this black bear that's grubbing, eating about 30 feet away. And so if you're a visitor to the park, this is absolutely awesome, right? This is why you came. You're getting a picture of a bear...


ROTT: ...Maybe a selfie with a bear.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

ROTT: From the Park Service's perspective, it's good, too, because you have these pictures that will go up on Facebook and get shared and attract more people. But as we're watching, this Park Service truck pulls up and this lady gets out.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Too close. Too close, folks.

ROTT: All right, so she's saying it's too close to the road and people, and she starts yelling at the bear.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Go. Get out of here, bear.

ROTT: So she's scaring it off because in order to preserve and protect this bear and these people, it can't be hanging out this close to a road and this close to people. It's good for pictures, but it's not good for the bear.

And that's the challenge that the National Park Service is facing here at Great Smoky Mountains National Park and all across the country, finding that balance between preserving, protecting and providing for entertainment. And that's what I'm going to show with these stories over the next couple of weeks from here at this park.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Nathan Rott in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Thanks.

ROTT: Thank you, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott
Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.