24 September 2014

How Does Smokies World Heritage Site Designation and Biosphere Reserve Affect Smokies Tourism Management?

An interesting question was lodged on a Facebook group I follow that piqued my curiosity. How does the designation as a World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve affect tourism management in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP)? So, I went to the GSMNP Public Affairs Office and they were quick to respond to help me understand more about the designation and what it means in the greater scheme of things.

According to Brent Everitt, Executive Assistant/Public Affairs Officer for the GSMNP, the Smokies were originally selected in 1976 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as one of the first International Biosphere Reserves. Then in December 1983, the 21-nation World Heritage Committee unanimously selected the GSMNP as a World Heritage Site.

UNESCO was created in the '40s as a nationwide networking organization dedicated to, among other things, protecting sites of "outstanding universal value" like the Great Smokies. In 1971, UNESCO began a worldwide program designed to help land managers share scientific knowledge and practical experiences.

NPS. Endangered fish lay their eggs
(shown here in a net) under rocks
in Smoky Mountain streams. 
The Southern Appalachians Man and the Biosphere (SAMAB) reaches far beyond the boundaries of the park stretching from southwestern Virginia to northern Georgia, and from east Tennessee through North Carolina to northwestern South Carolina. The biosphere, Everitt said, provides for coordination between agencies and non-government organizations to conserve cultural and natural resources. International Biospheres in the United States are coordinated by the U.S. MAB within the State Department.

The United States proposed the World Heritage Convention to the international community and was the first nation to ratify it, Everitt explains. The World Heritage Convention, the most widely accepted international conservation treaty in human history, is the American national park idea being carried out worldwide. The inscription of 21 American properties as World Heritage Sites formally recognizes the respect they hold in the world community. Beyond recognition, Everitt said, inscription as a World Heritage Site has no impact on the park or its management.

Although these designations do not impact the way the National Park is managed, many (particularly international) tourists are interested in coming to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park because it has been recognized as a special place of protection, according to Dana Soehn, GSMNP Management Assistant/Public Affairs. She added that the GSMNP's management practices are well aligned with biosphere reserve protections, but they are not subject to management directives from UNESCO. They are managed independently as directed by their management policies and orders from the Director of the NPS.

NPS. Management practices regarding tourists are not affected by
the World Heritage Site or Biosphere Reserve designations.
Tourists in Cades Cove are pictured here
photographing a black bear.
So, while there is no real impact on tourists as a result of these designations, it is certainly a special designation that impacts tourism as a whole and has far-reaching economic and cultural impact as a result of global awareness.

Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, one of the highest peaks in the Blue Ridge Mountains (elev. 5,946 feet), is another local International Biosphere Reserve designee. In 1992, Grandfather Mountain was accepted into the international network of biosphere reserves. As of May 2009, there were 553 biosphere reserves in 107 countries. Criteria for selection as a Biosphere Reserve are that the property must be:
  • a sample of a unique ecological community
  • permanently protected from uncontrolled development
  • with a history of scientific research and monitoring
  • that provides for training of resource management professionals
  • and is dedicated to consciousness-raising with respect to current ecological issues.
The Nature Conservancy also considers Grandfather Mountain an ecological site of global significance, as it provides habitat for more globally rare species than any mountain east of the Rockies. Grandfather’s partnership with The Nature Conservancy began in 1990 when Grandfather Mountain, Inc. began donating or selling a series of conservation easements that forever protect the Grandfather Mountain backcountry from development.

To sum it up, the designations really have nothing to do with tourism management in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park but have more to do with a global sharing of knowledge, experience and ideas of worldwide environmental protection.

Now I'm fully aware that there are different trains of thought on whether these designations are good or bad for the protected areas and for the United States in general.

The George Wright Society states the following on its website: "The fundamental point is that UNESCO, the MAB Council, the MAB National Committees, or any other part of the United Nations have no power to force changes in land/resource management or ownership upon governments, public agencies, or private parties in the United States (or any other country, for that matter). Through the MAB Council, UNESCO does set standards for biosphere reserves, and through periodic reviews it assesses whether the standards are being promoted. If they aren't, the Council encourages the reserve manager to make the changes necessary to do so, but cannot force any changes. The United States' participation in the biosphere reserve program is entirely voluntary, and land within U.S. biosphere reserves remains under the control of its owners."

Stacy Kowtko, in America's Natural Places: South and Southeast, says the designation "encourages developing ways for local communities to enjoy economic prosperity without destroying valuable environmental resources. A biosphere reserve is not, however, land controlled by the United Nations. The designation simply functions as a method of value recognition and an environmental system that focuses on finding the balance between development and conservations activities."

Many nay-sayers, it seems, have ulterior motives such as development in buffer zones established around national parks and other protected areas. John Peine of the SAMAB Foundation, in Ecosystem Management for Sustainability: Principles and Practices, says, "Because SAMAB membership consists of regional land managers and decision makers, along with scientists and other concerned parties, SAMAB provides a unique mechanism to implement an integrated approach to ecosystem management in a region of significant ecological resources. A central value of SAMAB is that it serves as an active forum to debate land use ethics in the region."

It seems that the designation as a biosphere reserve makes it easier to have a coordinated international effort to conduct scientific research. In 2010 there were fifteen scientific studies being performing at Grandfather Mountain. Projects ranged from census studies of crayfish and snails to collecting red spruce seeds for storage in international seed banks.

By Hugh Morton. Crossing Grandfather’s ridges on the Grandfather Trail
is a rigorous challenge that takes hikers in and out of wind-dwarfed spruce and fir,
across or around rock walls and pinnacles and into open spaces
with views of mountains unfurling in every direction.
Again, from the Grandfather Mountain website: "The purpose of the Man and Biosphere program is to foster harmonious relationships between human beings and their environment. The mission of the Man and Biosphere program is to identify and share information on ways that man can enjoy economic prosperity without destroying the environment. A Biosphere Reserve is not land controlled by the United Nations. Grandfather Mountain Inc. makes its own decisions regarding the operation of its business and management of its resources without any input from the United Nations."

The Great Smoky Mountains are among the oldest in the world, probably formed between 200 and 300 million years ago and are rife with biological diversity. According to the Park website, over 17,000 species have been documented in the park: Scientists believe an additional 30,000-80,000 species may live there. Why such a wondrous diversity? Mountains, glaciers, and weather are the big reasons, the website states. The park is the largest federally protected upland landmass east of the Mississippi River. The Smokies have been relatively undisturbed by glaciers or ocean inundation for over a million years, allowing species eons to diversify.

It seems to me that the designation as World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve help foster understanding, increase opportunities for scientific research, bring notoriety to protected areas and thus bring an appreciation of the varied resources we are privileged to enjoy in our back yard.

06 September 2014

Ginseng Poachers Sentenced to Jail Time for Illegally Harvesting in the Smokies

It's been an Appalachian tradition as far back as Daniel Boone and has been used by American Indian tribes for even longer. Harvesting wild American ginseng has been commonplace in the mountains and the root has been used by medicine men and mountain folk to cure a host of ills, from colic and depression to indigestion and anxiety.

Ginseng roots are thought to look like the human form.
Billy Joe Hurley of Bryson City, NC and his brother Jeff are no strangers to the ginseng trade. Problem is, they're getting it from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and that's illegal.

The brothers have both served time for illegally poaching wild ginseng from the Smokies. Billy Joe has been sentenced at least four times in the last 10 years. And Jeff Hurley testified in court in 2013 that his family has a long history of digging ginseng from the mountains.

In April 2011, Billy Joe was caught with 554 roots and sentenced to 75 days in jail and had to pay over $5,000 in restitution. Brother Jeff got 14 days and had to pay about $2,500 in restitution. Then, just months later in October 2011, Billy Joe was caught poaching another 183 roots from the Great Smokies and sentenced to another 120 days in jail.

Authorities described Hurley in 2013 as down-on-his-luck and the money as just too tempting to stop the illegal behavior.

Billy Joe Hurley's most recent arrest, however, has netted him five and a half months in jail from U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis Howell, according to an announcement by Anne Tompkins, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina. Hurley admitted in June this year to digging up 83 American ginseng roots from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Although Park staff have replanted any viable roots, probably half of them won't survive. Years of poaching have depleted the plant and poachers are taking younger and younger plants as a result.

Ginseng is thought to be an "adaptogen"
that relieves stress, fatigue and thirst.
Ginseng poaching is partially fueled by an insatiable demand for American ginseng in Asia and the price can reach as much as $900 a pound or more. Asians treasure American ginseng for its medicinal properties. They have overharvested their own Asian ginseng and have driven up demand for the American variety.

American ginseng is native to the Smokies, where the wild roots have been put on North Carolina's Watch Category 5B, which includes species that are in high commercial demand and often collected and sold in high volume. Ginseng harvesting in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has always been illegal, but that hasn't stopped people from illegally poaching from 500 to 1,000 illegal roots every year.

"Illegally harvesting American ginseng from federally protected land areas poses a serious danger to a plant that is part of our national heritage. It is also a crime, and my office will continue to work closely with National Park Service Rangers to prosecute poachers who profit from the illegal harvesting and sale of this endangered national resource," Tompkins said.

Acting Chief Ranger Steve Kloster said, "Our rangers remain committed to protecting ginseng which is now locally threatened by poaching ..." He said they hope Hurley's conviction and sentencing Aug. 28 will act as a deterrent to others considering illegally poaching ginseng.

Rangers are marking ginseng plants with dye and implanting microchips so that the illegal plants can be easily identified in an effort to curtail poaching.

Another man, Christopher Ian Jacobson of Cosby, TN, was sentenced on Aug. 6, 2014 to 80 days in prison for possessing 298 roots of ginseng. He was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine.

The U.S. Attorney's Office and the National Park Service reminded the public in their press release that gathering ginseng on federal lands, such as the Great Smokies, is a federal crime. The Smokies are the largest fully protected reserve known for wild ginseng. This plant was formerly abundant throughout the eastern mountains, but due to overharvesting, populations have been significantly reduced to isolated patches. The roots poached in this park are usually young, between the ages of 5 and 10 years, and have not yet reached their full reproductive capacity. In time, the park's populations might recover if poaching ceased.

While the Smokies' ginseng is off-limits, there are ways to legally gather it. It is legal to harvest ginseng outside the park on private lands or with a permit in certain Forest Service areas during the harvesting season. Park scientists have realized these slow-growing native plants could disappear because harvesting means taking the entire ginseng root. Over the years, park biologists have marked and replanted over 15,000 roots seized by law enforcement. Monitoring indicates that many of these roots have survived and are again thriving in these mountains.

To report illegal harvesting, call the Law Enforcement Desk of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at 865-436-1230.