Speech: Secretary's Remarks at Re-Dedication of Great Smokey Mountains National Park

Last edited 09/29/2021

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Thank you, Superintendent Ditmanson.

I am here today on behalf of President Barack Obama to celebrate Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to honor our ancestors who left us this treasure, and to rededicate an American icon for a new century.

As we gather on this seventy-fifth birthday of the Smokies, we are reminded that America's best ideas have often come when our nation has faced its most trying times.

We remember that it was in the bloodiest days of the Civil War that President Abraham Lincoln set aside the lands that are now Yosemite National Park.

We remember that it was at the dawn of the 20th century, with our open lands disappearing and wildlife dwindling, that President Theodore Roosevelt created the national wildlife refuge system, set aside vast stretches of new national forests, and expanded our national park system.

And we remember that it was here in Tennessee and North Carolina - in the darkest days of the Great Depression, with banks closing and bread lines growing - that our nation determined once again to take bold action to protect America's land, water, and wildlife.

The visionaries who created Great Smoky Mountains National Park understood the power of place.

They understood the way Americans draw strength from the landscapes of our continent; how the great outdoors refuels our spirit when times are tough; and how we cherish our connections to the mountains we hike, the rivers we fish, and the woods where we find solitude.

Those are the values protected here.

And that is why we are humbled by the courage and sacrifice of those who created Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

We honor the people who gave up their lands, homes, and businesses, so this park could exist.

We honor the men and women to whom these mountains have been entrusted for protection – the dedicated professionals of the national park service.

We honor the countless volunteers who year after year maintain the trails, improve the park, and teach children about its wonders.

And we honor the visionaries who helped conceive this great idea. They included President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who spoke here at the park's dedication in 1940, and his Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes.

They understood the moral and spiritual value of this place, but they also knew that amenities like this national park become economic engines. They draw visitors, help local businesses, and create jobs.

Superintendent Ditmanson tells me that at one point in the park's early development there were over 4,000 Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees - often called “Roosevelt's Tree Army” - at work building the trails, roads and other infrastructure in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Today, you see the fruits of their work everywhere in the park, from the rock walls and the bridges to the historic buildings.

The investments made 75 years ago are a reason why our national parks are among America's most sought-after vacation destinations and serve as major economic engines in neighboring communities.

The nearly 300 million visitors to our national park system contribute $11 billion annually to local economies and support 213,000 jobs in tourism, recreation and related industries.

Nowhere is this more true than here in Tennessee and North Carolina.

The 9.4 million people who come to Great Smoky Mountains National Park each year spend over $700 million annually. This makes the Smokies not only the most visited national park in the country but also the park with the highest economic impact.

We must continue to invest in our parks. We must remain committed to preserving our nation's treasured landscapes for future generations.

That is why I am so proud of our work in recent months under President Obama's leadership.

In March, a little over two months into office, President Obama signed legislation to protect over 2 million acres of new wilderness, to designate 1,000 miles of new wild and scenic rivers, and to create new national park units in communities across the country.

The 2009 Public Lands Act is the most significant land conservation legislation in decades.

I am also proud of the work that is underway in our national parks thanks to President Obama's economic recovery plan.

Across the country, we are investing $750 million in the national park system through the Economic Recovery Act.

Here in the Smokies, you are seeing $30 million going to facility improvement projects.

We're renovating campgrounds.

We're restoring picnic areas.

We're modernizing restrooms to better serve the needs of the disabled.

And we're reconstructing and repaving 18 miles of Park roads including the Clingmans Dome Road, which is just a stone's throw behind you. These projects are creating jobs while leaving a lasting legacy.

Still, we have more work to do if we are to fulfill the promise of our national park system.

There are new challenges to confront: Climate change. Open lands that are disappearing. Younger generations that are losing touch with nature.

Today, though, we are reminded that no matter how large the challenge – no matter how tough the times – America has always risen to the test.

When it comes to our treasured landscapes, we have inherited a proud tradition of big thinking that has, time and again, led to America's best ideas.

Today, may we honor those who envisioned a place called Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Closing Remarks

I would like to thank all of the speakers, in particular Senator Burr, Senator Alexander, Governor Perdue and Governor Bredesen.

It has been an honor to be here today on behalf of President Obama to celebrate this occasion.

This park is an extraordinary gift that we are humbled to inherit, and that we now have a duty to protect.

President Franklin Roosevelt said it well when he dedicated the park here in 1940. He said, and I quote:

“There are trees here that stood before our forefathers ever came to this continent; there are brooks that still run as clear as on the day the first pioneer cupped his hand and drank from them. In this Park, we shall conserve these trees, the pine, the red-bud, the dogwood, the azalea, the rhododendron, the trout and the thrush for the happiness of the American people.”

Today, as we rededicate this park, we also recommit ourselves to fulfilling President Roosevelt's vision and to completing the work of so many over so many years: Civilian Conservation corps enrollees, park service employees, park partners, park volunteers, gateway communities, park visitors and others.

We say thank you to all of them. Thank you to everyone who organized today's event. And thank you all for joining us in this celebration.

Please rise now for our National Anthem.

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