The Great Smoky Mountains National
A Wondrous Diversity of Life
Ridge upon ridge of forest straddles the border between
North Carolina and Tennessee in Great Smoky Mountains
National Park. World renowned for its diversity of plant
and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains,
and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian
mountain culture, this is America's most visited national
History and Culture:
Great Smoky Mountains National Park preserves
a rich cultural tapestry of Southern Appalachian history.
The mountains have had a long human history spanning thousands
of years-from the prehistoric Paleo Indians to early European
settlement in the 1800s to loggers and Civilian Conservation
Corps enrollees in the 20th century.
The park strives to protect the historic
structures, landscapes, and artifacts that tell the varied
stories of people who once called these mountains home.
:People have occupied these mountains
since prehistoric times, but it was not until the 20th
century that human activities began to profoundly affect
the natural course of events here.
When the first white settlers reached
the Great Smoky Mountains in the late 1700s they found
themselves in the land of the Cherokee Indians. The tribe,
one of the most culturally advanced on the continent,
had permanent towns, cultivated croplands, sophisticated
political systems, and extensive networks of trails. Most
of the Cherokee were forcibly removed in the 1830s to
Oklahoma in a tragic episode known as the "trail
of Tears. The few who remained are the ancestors of the
Cherokees living near the park today.
Life for the early European settlers was
primitive, but by the 1900s there was little difference
between the mountain people and their contemporaries living
in rural areas beyond the mountains. Earlier settlers
had lived off the land by hunting the wildlife, utilizing
the timber for buildings and fences, growing food, and
pasturing livestock in the clearings. As the decades passed,
many areas that had once been forest became fields and
pastures. People farmed, attended church, hauled their
grain to the mill, and maintained community ties in a
typically rural fashion.
The agricultural pattern of life in the
Great Smoky Mountains changed with the arrival of lumbering
in the early 1900s. Within 20 years, the largely self-sufficient
economy of the people here was almost entirely replaced
by dependence on manufactured items, store bought food,
and cash. Logging boom towns sprang up overnight at sites
that still bear their names: Elkmont, Smokemont, Proctor,
Loggers were rapidly cutting the great
primeval forests that remained on these mountains. Unless
the course of events could be quickly changed, there would
be little left of the regions special character
and wilderness resources. Intervention came when Great
Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1934.
The forestat least the 20% that remained uncut within
park boundarieswas saved.
More than 1,200 land-owners had to leave
their land once the park was established. They left behind
many farm buildings, mills, schools, and churches. Over
70 of these structures have since been preserved so that
Great Smoky Mountains National Park now contains the largest
collection of historic log buildings in the East.
Biological diversity is the hallmark of
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which encompasses
over 800 square miles in the Southern Appalachian Mountains.
No other area of equal size in a temperate climate can
match the park's amazing diversity of plants, animals,
and invertebrates. Over 17,000 species have been documented
in the park: Scientists believe an additional 30,000-80,000
species may live here.
Why such a wondrous diversity? Mountains,
glaciers, and weather are the big reasons. The park is
the largest federally protected upland landmass east of
the Mississippi River. Dominated by plant-covered, gently
contoured mountains, the crest of the Great Smokies forms
the boundary between Tennessee and North Carolina, bisecting
the park from northeast to southwest in an unbroken chain
that rises more than 5,000 feet for over 36 miles. Elevations
in the park range from 875 to 6,643 feet. This range in
altitude mimics the latitudinal changes you would experience
driving north or south across the eastern United States,
say from Georgia to Maine. Plants and animals common in
the southern United States thrive in the lowlands of the
Smokies while species common in the northern states find
suitable habitat at the higher elevations.
The Great Smoky Mountains are among the
oldest mountains in the world, formed perhaps 200-300
million years ago. They are unique in their northeast
to southwest orientation, which allowed species to migrate
along their slopes during climatic changes such as the
last ice age, 10,000 years ago. In fact, the glaciers
of the last ice age affected the Smoky Mountains without
invading them. During that time, glaciers scoured much
of North America but did not quite reach as far south
as the Smokies. Consequently, these mountains became a
refuge for many species of plants and animals that were
disrupted from their northern homes. The Smokies have
been relatively undisturbed by glaciers or ocean inundation
for over a million years, allowing species eons to diversify.
In terms of weather, the park's abundant
rainfall and high summertime humidity provide excellent
growing conditions. In the Smokies, the average annual
rainfall varies from approximately 55 inches in the valleys
to over 85 inches on some peaks-more than anywhere else
in the country except the Pacific Northwest. During wet
years, over eight feet of rain falls in the high country.
The relative humidity in the park during the growing season
is about twice that of the Rocky Mountain region.
Some 100 species of native trees find
homes in the Smokies, more than in any other North American
national park. Almost 95% of the park is forested, and
about 25% of that area is old-growth forest-one of the
largest blocks of deciduous, temperate, old-growth forest
remaining in North America. Over 1,500 additional flowering
plant species have been identified in the park. The park
is the center of diversity for lungless salamanders and
is home to more than 200 species of birds, 66 types of
mammals, 50 native fish species, 39 varieties of reptiles,
and 43 species of amphibians. Mollusks, millipedes, and
mushrooms reach record diversity here.
In recognition of the park's unique natural
resources, the United Nations has designated Great Smoky
Mountains National Park as an International Biosphere