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.


  1. What a fine article! I am delighted to read it and encouraged. Thank you sweetly. Now.. not to be one of those nay-sayers, but I am sharing with you a link that pertains to this topic. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-06-24/unesco-rejects-bid-to-delist-world-heritage-forest/5538946
    Tasmania wanted to de-list two sites and tried. They failed!

  2. Thanks for the link, Dana. Very interesting and certainly proves the point that UNESCO has a say in land and resource management to the extent of being able to decide whether a site is listed or delisted. I don't think you're a nay-sayer by any means and I appreciate the input and encourage a sharing of information to determine pros and cons of any subject.

    Keep in mind that while UNESCO does have the ability to make decisions regarding World Heritage Sites, they have no legal authority in any country. They can only list or delist.

    It seems to me that it's part of the age-old struggle between conservation and development/commerce. Greenpeace vs. whalers, Natural Resources Defense Council vs. Shell Oil in Alaska, UNESCO making the determination in the late '90s that Yellowstone National Park was "in danger" due to the New World/Crown Butte mining proposal that would have allowed gold mining only 3 miles away from the National Park.

    I would think that unless someone wanted to negate the benefits of World Heritage Site protection of environmental resources or land use management in buffer zones and already designated protected areas, they should be all for UNESCO's decision not to delist the Tazmanian forest.