Friday, February 3, 2017

Smoky Mtns Dispatch

By Drew Hanson

The stars aligned recently, giving me a rare opportunity to spend seven consecutive days hiking. Since there is a shortage of some kinds of hiking near my home, my chosen destination was Smoky Mountains National Park which boasts 800 miles of hiking trails plus three long-distance trails extending from the park.

Hike every day, I did. One was an eleven-mile trek to the top of Mt. LeConte and back. A couple days included out-and-back hikes on sections of the famed Appalachian Trail. Other days included loops or multiple shorter hikes in a single day.

It was an exhilarating trip, great for my physical and mental health. In the end, I could not help but wish I could do this more often, if even just on weekends. But life at home is too demanding for a regular 10-12-hour drive to the Smokies.

This led me to the question: Why does my home state of Wisconsin not offer this many hiking opportunities? Some will answer with something about how the Smokies have mountains and Wisconsin does not but that’s just Mountain Majesty Bias.

Yah, sure, the mountains are pretty. I visited this national park not because it has (small) mountains but because there are hundreds of miles of hiking trails within an hour's drive. One can hike the Smokies all day and then hike a different trail all the next day, and the next, and the next, literally for years and still hike different trails every weekend.

One day of my visit a trailhead parking lot was overflowing, easily 50 cars, used by people who want to hike and who, like me, were spending money in nearby towns. There are dozens of other trailhead parking lots in the park. It's a shame my home state did not make this kind of investment decades ago and that last year my governor vetoed $75k/year for the Ice Age Trail. The Smokies have so many miles of hiking trails because decades ago people made a choice and continue to make it so.

Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1934. Most of the land to create the park was purchased by the states of Tennessee and North Carolina, then donated to the National Park Service. Today, with its mountains that are but hills by western standards, Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States. In 2010, it had over 20 million visitors! It is the primary economic driver for many nearby communities. It is a success.

Where I currently live in southern Wisconsin, there are places to hike for an hour or two. What is severely lacking are places to hike most of a day for multiple days, hence the need to travel so far to have the experience I did. One reason for the shortfall is Wisconsin’s decades-long shotgun approach of creating scattered parks and wildlife areas across the state. Another reason is that hunting groups have too often treated a hiking trail as a threat. Another reason has to do with Mountain Majesty Bias.

Fortunately, time has not run out. Wisconsin can still fix this problem and have a balanced outdoor recreation portfolio. By investing in the Ice Age Trail, the way states in the east have for decades invested in their trails, the Badger State could still have many more multi-day hiking opportunities.

We can do this and you can help. Contact your elected officials and well-off friends. Tell them about the Ice Age Trail and that we should not have to travel to the Smokies to find sufficient hiking.