Partners help meet the needs of the park, visitors


The Great Smoky Mountains National Park preserves over 500,000 acres of precious mountain scenery and approximately 2,900 miles of rivers and streams, all habitats for thousands of species of plants, animals, fungi, and more. Amidst this impressive biodiversity are nearly 850 miles of trails and many iconic landmarks that regularly attract more than 12 million visitors each year – and a record 14.1 million visits in 2021.

The National Park Service is tasked with protecting and preserving this bountiful and much-loved place, but luckily they are not alone in their mission. It relies on four main non-profit partners to serve a growing number of visitors and care for a large and varied park.

In describing the role of the Great Smoky Mountains Association as one such partner, GSMA CEO Laurel Rematore recalled a quote attributed to writer Freeman Tilden, whose work has shaped the field of mountaineering. Interpretation in National Parks: “Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.”

The Great Smoky Mountains Association operates official bookstores inside the park and at the gate communities, offering a selection of park service-approved educational products, including publications, gifts, food, stuffed animals , etc.

“To me,” said Rematore, “it means that as human beings, we instinctively protect what is important to us. The GSMA’s mission is to help visitors better understand the cultural and natural resources of this park so that they will be inspired to care for this land and become its stewards.

A word from the Smokies: a volunteer preserves plant diversity in the Great Smoky Mountains

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The GSMA has worked side-by-side with the National Park Service since 1953 and has given more than $47 million in support to the park during that time. It supports the educational, scientific and historical preservation efforts of the NPS by operating official bookstores inside the park and in the gateway communities, publishing books and other media featuring cultural and natural resources, providing financial support for park programs and creating an informed community of individuals and businesses who care about the park through an extensive membership program.

Recent GSMA publications include the new "Smokies fish" field guide, the chapter book "In search of a safe passage," the firefly-themed 2022 wall calendar and the award-winning Smokies Life bi-annual journal.

The GSMA engages readers in the stories of the park and gives voice to important topics through its publications – which include the new “Fishes of the Smokies” field guide, the “A Search for Safe Passage” chapter book, the 2022 firefly-themed wall calendar and award – the bi-annual Smokies Life magazine – and with its Smokies LIVE blog and Sepia Tones: Exploring Black Appalachian Music podcast. He also collaborates with the park on projects like the Smokies Smart initiative, an effort to promote visitor safety through education. As part of this project, GSMA-operated bookstores offer Smokies Smart hiking items, such as backpacks and water bottles, to help hikers prepare for outdoor activities.

“We don’t do this work alone,” Rematore said. “It takes a village of partners to meet the needs of the millions of visitors to the park each year. »

Another educational partner, the Great Smoky Mountains Institute in Tremont, has inspired learning and curiosity for more than 50 years through its programs, workshops and camps for students and adults.

Members of the Great Smoky Mountains Association receive many benefits, including membership in Smokies Life, discounts at park visitor centers, and access to group hikes and member-exclusive educational sessions.  Members also receive an invitation to the annual GSMA Members' Weekend, an opportunity to get together with other members, explore the park, and participate in a variety of programs to learn more about the Smokies.

“While some visitors only spend minutes or hours outside of their cars exploring, we bring people into the park for days,” said Catey McClary, President and CEO of GSMIT. “We encourage and invite them to take the time to learn about the plants, streams and creatures that make up the ecosystem that the park service strives to protect, encouraging lifelong learners who will be at both current and future stewards of our beloved Smokies.

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GSMIT employees witness first-hand the positive effects of nature on their campers and program participants, a fact that has become even more important during a global pandemic that has drawn people outside and into the park in record number.

The mission of the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont is to provide experiential learning for youth, adults, and educators through programs that promote self-discovery, critical thinking, and effective teaching.

Friends of the Smokies is the park’s philanthropic partner. Since its founding in 1993, FOTS has provided more than $75 million through individual, corporate and foundation giving. The organization now supports some 70 park projects a year and recently entered into a 20-year agreement to continue its commitment to fund trail restoration, environmental education programs, wildlife research, hemlock treatment and other projects that might not be possible without this help.

Built in 1889, Little Cataloochee Church remains a beloved icon of Great Smoky Mountains National Park's cultural heritage.  The Friends of the Smokies' Forever Places initiative aims to provide funds to ensure that these historic structures are not lost forever.

A successful NPS/FOTS partnership, Trails Forever supports the work of skilled trail crews to restore and rehabilitate trails, improving safety and sustainability for years to come. A new program recently introduced by FOTS called Forever Places will support a permanently funded historic preservation team with an endowment goal of $9 million.

The Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont offers in-depth learning experiences that encourage lifelong appreciation and stewardship of the environment.

A fourth core park partner, Discover Life in America, is on a mission to discover, understand, and conserve biological diversity in the Smokies, positioning itself as the park’s nonprofit science arm. In 2023, DLiA will celebrate 25 years in which it has more than doubled the park’s known species – from around 9,000 to over 21,000 species found in the park’s various habitats. Of these, 1,049 are completely new to science.

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Volunteers cross Abrams Creek during a Discover Life in America bioblitz, as part of the biodiversity inventory of all taxa.  DLiA engages the community in scientific research through programs, events, internships and volunteer opportunities.

“You can’t protect species if you don’t know they exist,” said DLiA executive director Todd Witcher, “so the first step is discovery, but we also need to determine the rarity of species and their roles in the ecosystem, and how that changes over time, so that the park can better manage this unique space – a globally endangered temperate rainforest We have accomplished a lot, but there is still more much to do here — and everywhere — in biodiversity conservation.

DLiA’s latest initiative, Smokies Most Wanted, calls on the public to submit sightings of life forms in the park through a simple phone app called iNaturalist and has already achieved more than 80 new park records.

A student photographs a red milkweed plant for upload to the iNaturalist app.  DLiA's newest initiative, Smokies Most Wanted, uses iNaturalist observations from the public to map high-priority species in the park.

These four nonprofit partner organizations work with the National Park Service to ensure that they support the park in complementary ways and that there are enough unmet needs for everyone.

“There’s an old adage that goes, ‘No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.’ This is how I feel about the support and collaboration the park receives from its four main partners: the Great Smoky Mountains Association, Friends of the Smokies, the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, and Discover Life in America,” said Superintendent Cassius Cash. “It takes all of their combined missions working together to meet the needs of today’s visitors as we usher in the next generation of users, supporters, advocates…and even employees for the next century. “

Valerie Polk

Valerie Polk is a videographer and publications associate for the 29,000-member Great Smoky Mountains Association, a nonprofit educational partner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Contact her at


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