“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” - Mr. Rogers
For the past month, we have seen story after story of national parks across the country being abused and neglected. A large amount of the mistreatment of our protected wild is due to an ongoing government shutdown. Then, there is another portion of the scary and ugly moments that occur all of the time, but rarely have a magnifying glass on them. The same can be said for the helpers that have received attention from the media in the midst of the shutdown. From volunteers to organizations and even the simple actions of guests during their visits to the park. Some have stepped up due to the shutdown but others are consistently making a difference in the shadows.
Instead of focusing on the downside of the current situation, let's use it as a lesson. Let us take the fury and frustration that has surfaced with seeing the parks trashed up, wildlife being harassed, trails being mistreated - and use that energy to move forward in a way that makes tomorrow better.
How can we step up and be better stewards of the places that we love?
By getting involved in big ways, and small ways.
"There are trees here that stood before our forefathers ever came to this continent; there are brooks that still run as clear as on the day the first pioneer cupped his hand and drank from them. In this park, we shall conserve these trees, the pine, the red-bud, the dogwood, the azalea, the rhododendron, the trout and the thrush for the happiness of the American People."
- Franklin D. Roosevelt (GSMNP dedication ceremony, September 1940)
The park was created for us to enjoy, not destroy. For us to cherish and protect.
To do so, we must act with love all of the time - not just when park staff is absent.
Ready to get involved? Here are a few ways to start!
Support Those That Support The Great Smoky Mountains National Park:
In the Great Smoky Mountain Mountains National Park, two organizations are always present and doing great things for the park. Friends of the Smokies and the Great Smoky Mountains Association both work continuously to support the park. Many visitors of the park support each of them every year, but there are also far too many visitors that don't know about all that they do. Both non-profits have stepped up during the shutdown and helped to provide funding that has been needed to keep visitors center locations open. They have helped to keep trash collected and restrooms accessible as well. Throughout the year they also work to provide structure and trail restoration, support educational opportunities and more. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the few national parks that doesn't require an entrance fee. Many parks in the country have fees as high as $20 a person per visit. If you're a visitor to Smokies, after seeing all that these two non-profits do, consider supporting them by purchasing a membership or making a donation.
Become a registered volunteer in the park. As a volunteer, you'll get to give back to the place that you love while spending time there are well. Volunteer solo or put together a group. Opportunities range from helping with special events to adopting a trail. If you can't volunteer on a regular basis check out the one-day work events that are available.
Another option for volunteering in the park is working with the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. The private, non-profit organization is the only residential learning environment located within the park boundaries. The GSMIT has been working for 40 years to connect people of all ages to nature and the Smoky Mountains. They have numerous opportunities for volunteers and once you're involved with thier programs, you'll find that you receive far more from the experience than you could ever possibly give.
When visiting the park, it is very important to Leave No Trace. It's also just as important to rise above those that do leave behind their trash or disrespect the area in other ways. During the shutdown, there are many ways to be a part of the solution instead of the problem. Help where help is needed, share Leave No Trace tips and encourage others to do the same. The same type of actions is necessary once the shutdown is over as well.
The final thought of the current dilemma with our parks being affected by the government shutdown is simply this. We may not all agree on politics but we can agree on protecting and caring for our parks - year around. And wouldn't it be beautiful if the shutdown that has divided us took a turn for the positive and at least brought us all together as stewards for a better tomorrow?