Tranquil water bubbles in a cold mountain stream. In the distance, hikers can be heard making their way to the trailhead. Trees are adorned with lichens and mosses. The sun is shining, and there is not a cloud in the sky. It is a fantastic day for a hike.
One of the thousands of visitors hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park today is Gessika Guerra, here because the park feeds her dual passions of adventure and learning. But she is also here to design an experience for people who need to connect to the healing that outdoor environments often bring.
Guerra is an eight-year Navy veteran. She spent six years on active duty, including time stationed in San Diego working on an aircraft carrier. Now she is a Veterans Outreach intern with National Parks Conservation Association, eager to contribute to a program designed especially for veterans to learn about NPCA and the National Park Service.
“My goal is to create daily experiences in the parks that are not only educational and adventurous but also safe,” Guerra said. “I want to encourage the veterans to bond, to laugh, to tell their tales, and find camaraderie in a national park setting.”
Since 2016, NPCA has worked to provide advocacy opportunities for veterans, service members, and their families by connecting them to park protection campaigns. NPCA’s Veterans Program Manager, Jimi Shaughnessy, is working to build on this progress and identify even more meaningful opportunities to get veterans into our national parks, educate them on the issues facing parks, and empower them to lead the way.
“My unique relationship with national parks is motivated by a love of country, an affinity for continued service, and a desire to share the legacy of the country I fought for in uniform,” Shaughnessy said. “NPCA understands this connection that I have, that Gessika has, and that so many other veterans have with our parks.”
Studying recreation and wildland management at the University of Tennessee, Guerra learned that people who frequently visit an outdoor space care for it more with every visit and also reap benefits in the realm of personal wellbeing. NPCA’s Veterans Program events focus on educating veterans on wild spaces while building community.
“It can be hard to talk to anyone,” Guerra explained. “I know from my own experience that the outdoors is not just for physical health. It is also for increased mental and emotional health. The Smokies have offered me those types of experiences.”
Guerra shared a special moment of growth she experienced on a hike in the Smokies. She happened to find a salamander near the trail and was able to use the research skills and confidence-building experiences she learned in the Navy to educate other hikers about the need to protect this tiny creature.
“I was timid as a mouse before the Navy,” Guerra said. “I left a fearless, forward person. That fearless behavior, I learned, helps people.”
Guerra wants to continue her experiences working with other veterans to help them feel safe and inspired to do something similar, using their confidence and communication skills to educate the public about conservation. Her first event, set for May 13, centers around an important new conservation initiative: Safe Passage: The I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project.
There is a documented rise in motor vehicle collisions with wildlife in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina near Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A 28-mile stretch of highway near the Smokies’ boundary is a key focus area for a group of nearly 20 federal, state, tribal, and non-governmental organizations collaborating to find solutions.
“Wildlife have traversed our landscapes for centuries in search of food, mates, and territory,” said Guerra. “These animals struggle to make sense of interstate traffic and are often victims of vehicle collisions.”
When I-40 was created in the 1960s, there were no elk here and maybe only 500 bears. The highway sliced through a mountain landscape where for millennia animals had freely followed ancient corridors. Now the highway cuts the Smokies off from other large public lands—Cherokee and Pisgah National Forests—and there are nearly 2,000 bears and likely 200 elk moving in and out of the park. Safe Passage promotes the development of dedicated wildlife crossings to reduce collisions with these animals—and the first of these is underway at the Harmon Den exit.
“I plan to lead a hike over the Appalachian National Scenic Trail via Chestnut Hill Trail in the Smokies and end at the Appalachian Trail crossing of I-40 at Waterville Road,” says Guerra. “I want my veteran guests to enjoy the tranquility of the forest before hitting the unpleasant wall of noise when approaching I-40. It is one thing to preach how dangerous the interstate is for wildlife; it is another to experience it for yourself.”
NPCA will host a series of additional outings in 2023 focused on the education and conservation of parks in and around East Tennessee and Western North Carolina. These events include hiking, wildlife viewing, and stargazing, as well as trail maintenance and stewardship.
“Veterans have a special relationship with our national parks from Gettysburg—the site of one of the most consequential battles in American history—to Yosemite, where Buffalo Soldiers served as some of the park’s first rangers,” Shaughnessy said. “All of our parks reflect the American values and ideals veterans fought to protect, which is why their voices are necessary to protect and enhance our parks for future generations.”
If you are interested in participating in veteran outings in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, please contact Gessika Guerra at firstname.lastname@example.org or find more details online at meetup.com/veterans-for-national-parks. For national events, partnership opportunities, and all items related to the Veterans Program, please reach out to Jimi Shaughnessy at Jshaughnessy@npca.org.
The Safe Passage Fund Coalition—represented by The Conservation Fund, Defenders of Wildlife, Great Smoky Mountains Association, National Parks Conservation Association, North Carolina Wildlife Federation, The Wilderness Society, and Wildlands Network—makes it possible for donations to be collected for future road mitigation and wildlife crossing structures between Asheville and Knoxville. Learn more at SmokiesSafePassage.org.