By KRISTIN FARLEY
6 News Anchor/Reporter
GATLINBURG (WATE) — Unlike most other major national parks, the Great Smoky Mountains doesn't charge an entrance fee.
Camping fees generated more than $1.4 million in 2008, but that still means keeping up 800 square miles of land, trails and historic structures is a challenge.
However, thanks to two big partnerships formed over the last several decades, major projects are getting done.
The Great Smoky Mountains Association (GSMA) was formed in 1953. It raises money for the park through its eight gift shops.
Four are in the park:
- Cades Cove Visitor Center – near the mid-point of the 11-mile, one-way Cades Cove Loop Road
- Oconaluftee Visitor Center – two miles north of Cherokee, N.C., on Highway 441
- Sugarlands Visitor Center – two miles south of Gatlinburg on Highway 441
- Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont – at 9275 Tremont Road
The other four are located at:
- Downtown Gatlinburg Welcome Center – at traffic light #3 on the parkway in downtown Gatlinburg
- Gatlinburg Welcome Center on the Spur – two miles outside Gatlinburg on Highway 441 south
- Sevierville Visitor Center – Highway 66
- Townsend Visitor Center – Highway 321
“We were designed to be a support organization and to provide these educational materials and resources that the federal government could not provide on their own as a federal agency,” explains Executive Director Terry Maddox.
GSMA also publishes many of the field guides and books visitors purchase year after year.
“We work side by side with park staff, which is unique” Maddox says. “Most visitors get a little confused. They assume we're government employees because we're working in the national park.”
Recently, GSMA has raised money to help save the hemlock trees and it's poured nearly half a million dollars into a new theater at Sugarlands.
In 1993, Friends of the Smokies was started, as way to help raise funds for a restoration project. Since then, the group has aimed to donate at least $1 million a year.
Friends Marketing Director Holly Burcham told 6 News, “One of our largest sources of support, that many people are familiar with, is the TN Friends of the Smokies specialty license plates.”
The plates alone generate nearly $800,000 annually.
Friends also raises money through several other projects including donation boxes placed throughout the park.
All the money raised goes to various programs including the “Parks as Classroom” program which educates area students in the park.
As part of the park's 75th anniversary, GSMA and Friends of the Smokies are funding a new visitors center at the park's Oconaluftee entrance in North Carolina. The ground breaking is set for June 15.