By ROBERT JUMPER
ONE FEATHER EDITOR
Because we live here and are around it all the time, we take the natural beauty and untouched wilderness for granted. There are many places throughout our country where residents never see the impressive display of nature that we can see by merely stepping on our front porches-the green rolling hills, the rushing waters of the Oconaluftee, the trails and greenways full of wildlife.
There are places in this country where they don’t see green when they walk out their doors. They see concrete gray. Even as civilization sneaks in, we still have easy access to deep woods. There are people who still get lost, figuratively and literally, in our backyard. Nature is beautiful and wild and sometimes dangerous. It excites and intrigues us. Nature brings us back to an earlier time in human history.
Bears roam freely and are seen regularly; sometimes at a visitor’s campsite; sometimes in our backyard trash can — rafters of turkey hunt and peck along our roadsides, along with a sizeable population of elk. Running enthusiasts regularly display close encounters with the large, antlered ones as they do their daily constitutional. Deer are being spotted more frequently on the Boundary, due in part to the efforts of the Tribe to repopulate tribal lands with bucks and does.
Millions of men, women, and children come to the Qualla Boundary area to be taken back in time; to a time when life was simpler. The hustle and bustle that urban life brings can be halted in our neck of the woods. We need to be reminded in the chaos of everyday life that it doesn’t have to be that way. We want a port of peace in a stormy world.
One of the most visited attractions (amenities?) in Cherokee is the Oconaluftee Island Park. Two little islands in the middle of the river; trees, grass, bamboo, and ducks…lots of ducks. No audio-guided tours, although there used to be some “talking trees” with a recording of some Cherokee history around the park. No fancy light shows although you may easily navigate the islands at night with the modern street lights that are throughout the park. There are three shelters or “pavilions” there so that families may enjoy nature’s glory, rain or shine. Some erosion control work, a little landscaping, and some bridge accesses have been added. Otherwise, the park is the same as it has been for decades, if not hundreds of years.
In a technologically-advanced, fast-paced society, the Island Park doesn’t sound like much. So, why is it populated every spring, summer, and fall with hundreds of people from across the country and the Boundary? Because a couple or family may go the Island Park and focus on two things that get lost in the competitive, mind-numbing day to day grind. Those two things are peace and each other. Sometimes you must get rid of the background noise of the world and listen to the wind sweeping through the trees and the rushing water of the river to be able to reconnect with the love of a spouse or the laughter of your children.
Few things take us back to nature like an interaction with it. Breaking out your camera and hitting the Qualla Boundary trails hunting for big game and small. We have six sites on the North Carolina Birding Trails Guide, for example. We have flora and fauna that are unique to the Boundary and the Western North Carolina mountains. We have a centuries-old culture in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians that people love so desperately that they do extensive genealogical searches in hopes that they will find a blood connection to us.
Now, as we look at land use on the Boundary, it would make sense to me that if we are looking for ways to draw people to the Boundary and we are hoping to prosper from their visit, that we might want to look at those things that bring them here. The river and trout fishing have been a favorite pastime of locals and tourists alike for decades. And yet, as the need for extensive renovations or a new hatchery has been known for years, progress on solutions for the need has been painstakingly slow. During the Hicks administration, there were plans that included an aquarium like the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, where indigenous fish and wildlife are displayed in recreated natural habitats. Here is a little message from that aquarium’s website. “We continue to be a driver for Chattanooga’s growth, contributing annually $115 million in economic impact. We attract more than 750,000 visitors to our facility, many of whom bring to our city out-of-town dollars that local businesses may not otherwise earn. Our activities support a robust tax base that supports essential services in our community, like funding for roads and schools. And the multiplier effect of our Aquarium operations supports 1,297 jobs across our community.”
Viewing our native animals can sometimes be challenging and hazardous. A local newspaper recently printed a story that featured a picture of a man hand feeding an elk in one of our surrounding counties. While the article quoted a wildlife official that this is something that should not happen, the elk feeder in the report stated that hand feeding this elk was common practice among his neighbors. We repeatedly, we are told that elk are wild animals with the weight and muscle to severely injure or kill a human. We are also told that “taming” a wild animal to the point that they lose their fear of man endangers both man and elk. Many times the only solution for an elk that has lost its fear of man is to kill the elk. The same goes from other forest creatures, like bears. A nature park or reserve would allow people to see indigenous animals in natural surroundings and a controlled environment, protecting both humans and the forest creatures. The WNC Nature Center in Asheville gets approximately 100,000 visitors per year, and they are not sitting at the gateway to the Smokies, as we are.
Let’s celebrate our culture and our land. Let’s protect those valuable treasures. We can preserve and share that natural beauty with others. We should leverage those natural assets for the common good of our people.