Getting by with a little help from their ‘friends’

Donation boxes. You may have see them on the Blue Ridge Parkway or in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and thought, “Why are they panhandling me? Aren’t my taxes taking care of the parks?” In a word, no. Our parks and forests have been underfunded for years and these boxes are put up by “friends” groups as one way to raise funds for the parks. If not for them, our parks and forests would suffer even more deprivation.

Eye candy: Access to natural areas like DuPont State Forest’s Triple Falls owes much to the work of friends groups. photo by Daniel Bernstein

Steve Woody, current vice chair of the Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, explained recently how that group got started. In 1993, Judge Gary Wade of Sevierville, Tenn., hiked up to the Mount Cammerer fire tower with his friends. The roof on the tower had caved in and the area was in disarray. “We ought to do something about this,”  Wade thought. But when he approached Randy Pope, then-superintendent of the park, he learned that there was no way to donate directly to the park.

“A person would get rescued in the Smokies. He would feel so grateful and hand over a couple of hundred dollars—a fraction of the cost of a rescue—but the park service would have no way to accept that money,” Woody continued. So the Friends Group was born.

The effect of the friends groups can be seen in North Carolina Smokies projects from the renovation of Purchase Knob as an outdoor educational center to the reintroduction of elk to Cataloochee. Like Woody, many group members are descendants of families who moved out of the park in the 1930s and feel a special connection to their ancestral home. Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park doesn’t weigh in on park management decisions—instead, the group’s focus is raising money for the park.

Its sister organization, the Great Smoky Mountains Association, operates the stores in the park and publishes books that help get visitors on the trail. The most famous may be Hiking Trails of the Smokies, affectionately known as “the brown book.” For decades, outdoor volunteers have maintained trails, staffed visitor centers and picked up litter in the park. But now they’re organizing non-profits to champion parks and hiring professional fundraisers to bring in serious money for their cherished natural areas.

Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation is the primary professional fundraising organization for the Blue Ridge Parkway. Houck Medford, the Foundation’s executive director, explained that the Blue Ridge Parkway sees more visitors than Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon combined. “With such a large number of visitors, our role is to help preserve the park,” Medford said.

BRPF funded the boardwalk to Lower Falls at Graveyard Fields. Now the group is supporting a study to look at the resources at Graveyard Fields and how they can enhance visitors’ experiences. This may result in restrooms, improved signage and an enhanced trail system at the Pisgah landmark.

You can now advertise your love for either the Great Smoky Mountains National Park or the Blue Ridge Parkway by buying one of their license plates. The Smokies license plate, which now shows a bear superimposed on a ridgeline, has raised more than a million dollars since it became available in 1999. These groups also compete for the space on your body by selling caps, T-shirts, bags and other paraphernalia.

These friends groups may become more important in the future because of President Bush’s (National Park) Centennial Challenge proposal. This program will use up to $100 million per year of federal funds to match contributions from private partners, including money raised by friends groups.

DuPont State Forest

It may be difficult to differentiate friends groups from advocacy organizations because, of course, friends advocate for whatever entity they represent. Friends of Dupont is no stranger to advocacy and controversy. In its previous life as Friends of the Falls, the group got started when a portion of the forest was in danger of becoming a high-end housing development. The group’s efforts helped lead to the addition of a 2,200-acre tract permitting access to High Falls, Triple Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls. After its success, Friends of the Falls disbanded and became part of Friends of DuPont Forest.

The group operates an authoritative Web site and organizes events like the Mothers Day Tour de Falls, which shuttles visitors to and from the three waterfalls. Recently, the group donated $20,000 towards the installation of a permanent roof on the future visitor’s center and $15,000 to reroute and upgrade critical trails. The group continues to weigh in on controversies. When the possibility was raised of DuPont State Forest becoming a state park—with the possibility of more roads and more restrictions—the group favored the current forest designation.

Friends of the Mountains to Sea Trail (FMST) is a different kind of friends group. They are dedicated to making the vision of the Mountains to Sea Trail (MST) a reality—in other words, actively building the trail. Across the state within the planned MST Corridor, volunteer task forces have been formed to assist in the creation and maintenance of the MST.

In my search for friends groups in Western North Carolina, one gap stood out as wide as a missing front tooth. There seems to be no “Friends of Pisgah National Forest,” although the Cradle of Forestry Interpretive Association comes close. According to Alex Comfort, the association’s new executive director, the group operates 30 campgrounds from Alabama to Pennsylvania and 70 stores including the one at the Pisgah Visitor Center. They fund the Songcatcher Series and the Forest Festival Day, this year on October 6.

A windfall

Sometimes, money falls out of the sky, or from a very unexpected source. In December of last year, Friends of the Smokies received $783,906.78 as a result of a settlement of a class-action lawsuit related to price-fixing in the polyester fiber industry. The Friends group had nothing to do with polyester, other than maybe wearing a polyester shirt on the trail. Once the civil lawsuit, filed in Newport, Tenn., was settled, the judge found that it would be impractical to disburse the settlement proceeds to each individual who may have been affected by the matters at hand. Judge Richard Vance directed that the funds be disbursed to an entity that would use the proceeds for public benefit and Friends of the Smokies was chosen. The group plans to invest their windfall in their Smokies Fund. What a great judicial decision!

Danny Bernstein, a hike leader and outdoor writer, is the author of Hiking the Carolina Mountains. She can be reached at

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One thought on “Getting by with a little help from their ‘friends’

  1. Kitty Coleman

    Loved your article on the FRIENDS groups that rush to the aid of the Parkway. But, you left out FRIENDS of the Blue Ridge Parkway. We are currently trying to gather a crew of volunteers to assist with a litter control problem that has gotten out of hand on the commuter section of the Parkway in Asheville. Please check our website:


    Please check out the press release we just distributed to the NC press. It’s on our website at:

    We’d be very grateful for any help we can get from volunteer groups in Asheville. Thanks!

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