Funds from Great Smoky Mountains’ ‘Park It Forward’ Program Could Benefit Black Bear Population

by Amy Myers

A new program at Great Smoky Mountains National Park may provide a new source of funding for maintaining the area’s black bear population. The “Park It Forward” program proposes a new method for visitors and residents of the Smokies to pay for parking. Hopefully, this will lend much-needed money to wildlife conservation efforts.

Currently, there are 1,900 bears living in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Meanwhile, the surrounding Sevier County, Tenn. has a total of 100,000 full-time residents. The area also brings in 15 million visitors every year, according to WBIR. Needless to say, there’s a constant need for parking. So, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) thought of a way to benefit both two-legged and four-legged locals.

The Park It Forward program would have residents and visitors pay $5 a day to park their vehicles. For longer stays, individuals can pay, $15 a week or $40 for an annual pass in the Smokies. This could generate anywhere from $10 to $15 million dollars a year. As a result, the national park can better defend the black bear population.

“The Park it Forward initiative will allow the wildlife program in the Smokies to grow so they can have sufficient staff and resources to look after the wildlife, and make sure these populations are protected,” Jeff Hunter, the Senior Program Manager with the NPCA, said.

NPCA Hopes New Program Will Help Great Smoky Mountains Manage Growing Population of Black Bears

As the Great Smoky Mountains National Park black bear population continues to grow, so, too, does tourism. While this means more funding, it also means more chances for human-bear interactions. With the money from the Pay to Park program, the park can hire a larger staff that can more closely keep an eye on the relationship between bears and visitors.

“This will allow us to hire more people to look after this place and interact with the public, which is growing and growing and growing,” National Parks Conservation Association employee Charles Maynard said.

Maynard and Hunter hope that the Park It Forward program will help the Great Smoky Mountains hire biologists. These individuals can study the animals and recognize when problems start to arise. During the spring and fall months, this could mean blocking off areas of the park for increased bear activity.

Whatever the specifics, all parties can agree that the park needs more hands on deck.

“They’re doing a great job with the resources they have, but there’s not a ranger in Cataloochee, where the elk are all the time and the visitors are there,” Hunter said. “Park it Forward will allow us to hire more people to look after this place and interact with the public, which is growing and growing and growing.”

The NPCA Senior Program Manager added, “Just simply having more wildlife biologists to monitor populations to ensure they’re healthy, is vitally important.”