KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Wildlife biologists believe there could be as many as 1,900 bears living in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Sevier County has nearly 100,000 full-time residents and hosts about 15 million visitors each year.
This begs the question—How do bears and humans continue to live in harmony?
The answer could be the new "Park it Forward" proposal in the Smokies. The proposal suggests a new pay-to-park concept that would cost park visitors $5 a day to park their vehicle, $15 a week or $40 for an annual pass.
The GSMNP predicts this could generate $10 to $15 million dollars a year.
The park reported that money will go toward infrastructure projects and new employment positions. Some of the positions the park could hire are rangers, cleanup crews and wildlife biologists.
"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.
The NPCA works to protect the national parks around the country so they can be enjoyed by future generations. They work to restore clean waters, clear the air, educate visitors and defend wildlife.
That last part is key.
Jeff Hunter, the Senior Program Manager with the National Parks Conservation Association, is also the facilitator for the BearWise Taskforce. The group of volunteers and community leaders tackles the complex problems created by the growing population of people and bears.
One population, in particular, could feel the effects of this increased funding. The black bears within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
"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," Hunter said.
As tourism numbers continue to skyrocket and the bear population grows. There is an increased potential for conflict between humans and bears.
"Bearwise Task Force is seeking to keep these bears wild, right, we don't want the bears to become food-conditioned," Hunter said. "Once they start to learn to access human food, that's when you start to see conflicts."
NPCA believes one of the biggest parts of keeping the black bear population thriving is education.
"It's so critical that young people have that outdoor experience where they learn about the wonders of the outdoors, whether it's our bears or monarch butterflies or the birds. We want them to learn how this whole system cascades and works together," NPCA Southeast Regional Director Emily Jones said.
They want to do this by adding more rangers to the park.
"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."
They also want to hire biologists who can track and manage wildlife.
"Just simply having more wildlife biologists to monitor populations to ensure they're healthy, is vitally important," Hunter said.
"Park it Forward" is still in the proposal stage.
On Oct. 1, 2022, a submitted plan will be decided on by National Park Service Director Chuck Sams.
For six months after the final decision, if the project moves forward, the park will run a public education campaign.
Around the winter or spring of 2023, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park visitors must pay to park if the plan is adopted.