I spend more time in the Great Smoky Mountains national park than most people spend in an office in a 9-5 job and I often ponder what the most valuable resource in the GSMNP is.
Is the most valuable resource the natural beauty of the mountains and the stunning views that stretch for miles or in the hollows where you can only see for a few hundred feet?
Is the most valuable resource the overwhelming biodiversity of the park harboring animals as large as the Black bear and North American Elk and as small as the many uncounted and undiscovered micro and macroscopic creatures that inhabit the park?
Is the most valuable resource the protected cultural artifacts and historical buildings some of which stretch all the way back to Paleo Indians that date back some 13,000 years ago?
Or is the most valuable resource the almost 1,000 miles of hiking trails, manways, and gravel roads that are perfect for hiking year round and which attract millions of visitors a year who get to see the beauty of nature up close?
Or could it be the amazing peace and quiet that can be found in the backcountry of the Great Smoky Mountains national park?
While all of these resources are important and they can potentially last eons or at least many lifetimes, after much contemplation on my part, I have come to the conclusion that none of them are as important as the people who work to protect this incredible biospheres valuable resources and educate the public about them inspiring further generations to appreciate and protect these natural and cultural wonders.
While I have tremendous respect for the people employed by the national park service who often work far harder and for less than what they could make in the private sector, the real unsung heroes are the more than 2,000 locals who volunteer their time rain or shine out all out of the love for the Great Smoky Mountains national park.
While there are so many of these volunteers that are such exceptional stewards and representatives of the GSMNP, none stands out in my mind as much as Tom Harrington.
For years I have seen Tom out in the park every day hiking the trails for trail reports, conducting tours in the Primitive Baptist Church or at the Cable Mill, at the visitor shelter in the Cades Cove parking area or greeting hikers at trailheads.
It is inspiring to watch him at work and listen to him interact with the parks visitors while he is enthusiastically greeting people into his home away from home. His love of the park and the people who come here to enjoy it is infectious and it's easy to see that Tom Harrington has dedicated his life to his true calling.
In one of the conversations he has had with park visitors he gently explained why visitors can't take home souvenirs from the park other from the gift shops. It all started when a park visitor asked if they could bring home some pine cones.
Tom described to the park visitor how the Great Smoky Mountains national park receives approximately 10,000,000 visitors and year and if each visit takes home just 1 pine cone, 10 million pines cones that are needed to reseed the pine forest, feed or shelter the local critters or return valuable nutrients to the soil would all be gone. Rather than just saying "it's against the law" he brought it into terms that the park visitors would understand and embrace.
The are hundreds of other great volunteers I have come across in my journeys in and around the Great Smoky Mountains national park and I thank all of you because you and the park staff are what allows to park to continue to be the amazingly beautiful and safe environment it is. Your work at protecting these valuable resources has not gone unnoticed!