Smokies Are Unique
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the largest protected land areas east of the Rocky Mountains. With over 500,000 acres of forest, the Smokies contain an enormous variety of plants and animals. In terms of biological diversity, a walk from mountain base to peak is often compared to the 2,000 mile hike on the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.
Black bear by Brian Shults
The Smokies also have a rich cultural history. Cherokee Indians moved into the area over 1,000 years ago, and permanent white settlement began around 1800. Most families depended on farming for their livelihood. Life for many of these families changed with the coming of commercial logging operations around 1900 that stripped trees from three-quarters of what is now park land. Established in 1934, the park was created from more than 6,000 tracts of private and commercial land that were bought with money raised by public and private donations.
The park is designated as an International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations. The international system contains 525 reserves in 105 countries with the primary objectives of conserving genetic diversity and coordinating environmental education, research, and monitoring. The park is also a unit of the Southern Appalachian Man and Biosphere Reserve cluster. This membership enhances the park’s commitment to cooperative efforts in environmental education, research, resource management, and public involvement.
The park’s designation as a World Heritage Site and a State Natural Heritage Area by Tennessee and North Carolina reinforces the value of its natural and cultural resources.
Located within a two-day drive for half of the nation’s population, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has the highest visitation of all the national parks in the country. There are between eight and ten million visits to the park annually. Educational programs offered by rangers, interpretive displays located at the visitor centers, numerous publications, and roadside exhibits explain the unique aspects of the park so that visitors may better understand the area. More importantly, these programs stress why it is crucial to preserve environments such as the Great Smoky Mountains.
The Park’s wide recognition as a unique sanctuary is well deserved when one considers just a few of its features:
During the Ice Age, the Smokies were a refuge for hundreds of plant and animal species retreating from advancing glaciers. These species found suitable living conditions in the upper elevations of the Smokies. Because the park contains a variety of habitats, it is now home for some 1,500 species of vascular plants, 10% of which are considered rare, and well over 4,000 non-flowering plant species.
The park has 100 species of native trees, more than all of northern Europe. It also contains one of the largest blocks of virgin temperate deciduous forest in North America. Almost 95% of the park is forested, and about 25% of that area has not been substantially disturbed. Some trees attain record size in the Smokies and are over 20 feet in circumference.
Because of the elevation and orientation of the Great Smoky Mountains, there is a wide variety of plant and animal communities. In a small distance, changes in altitude, temperature, and moisture create entirely different ecosystems.
The Smokies provide the only habitat in the world for several plant and animal species, including Rugel’s ragwort and Jordan’s (red-cheeked) salamander. Species new to the scientific community are found nearly every year, especially in the lesser- studied groups, such as the invertebrates.
Inventory & Monitoring
What lives in Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Although the question sounds simple, it is actually extremely complex. Since 1998, an ambitious project named the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI) has brought scientists from around the world to the Smokies to discover the thousands of other species of plant and animal life in the park. No biological survey of this magnitude has ever been completed, anywhere. So far over 17,500 species have been identified in the park and scientists believe many hundreds more are yet to be discovered.
The park uses the results of the ATBI to make critical management decisions. The information is also available to the public via the Internet.
The study is being coordinated by the nonprofit group Discover Life in America. For more information, contact www.dlia.org.
At least 65 native mammals live in the Smokies, along with over 245 species of birds, many of which are here on a seasonal basis. There are 40 reptilian species which include turtles, lizards, and snakes. Amphibian species number 43, and of that figure,
30 are salamanders. This gives the Smokies the distinction of having the most diverse salamander population anywhere in the world. The park has about 76 species of fish, including several species of game fish. Thousands of species of land snails, insects, and spiders are also found in the park.
Culturally, the park has an unequaled collection of log buildings, including large two-story dwellings and working grist mills—over 100 historic structures in all. Designated historic districts preserve buildings that reflect various aspects of rural life in the Great Smoky Mountains.