The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the world with 12.5 million visitors in 2019.
And with 2020 changing the way we live – and the way we vacation – many visitors to the Smoky Mountains sought outdoor activities more than ever before.
But unfortunately, an increase in visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has led to an increase in trash, waste and litter on the mountains.
This has led Benny Braden of Harriman, Tenn., to become an avid supporter of area cleanups and waste awareness after discovering an abundance of trash and human waste at Max Patch last September.
“It was that moment that trash and litter on our public lands went from ‘out of sight, out of mind’ to ‘Houston, we have a problem!’ So I started doing something about it,” said Braden.
Braden is no stranger to the outdoors and has an impressive portfolio. As a former first responder, he is also open about his Post Traumatic Stress (PTS), which inspired him to hike between 1,000-2,000 miles each year and travel around the world.
He even held a record in 2017 with the Fastest Known Time for the Smokies 900-Miler, a challenge that involves hiking every trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Braden set the record twice in a single year, and that record held for almost three years. His fastest time was 924 miles in 43 days. The record was broken earlier this year.
Nowadays, he focuses his efforts on conservation and cleanups to keep the mountains beautiful.
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When he began routinely removing the trash and documenting it on social media, the posts began to go viral.
“These mountains and land were set aside to be protected from the affects of over-logging and stripping the land of its resources. The affects of over-tourism should be just as concerning.”
He’s not alone.
Troy Higgins of Townsend, Tenn., said he was inspired to pick up trash this year as well.
Higgins said he picked up trash once a week over a 16-week period last spring and summer near Townsend and the Cades Cove loop.
Over those weeks, he collected more than 400 pounds of garbage, which consisted of diapers, cigarettes and drug paraphernalia.
“Anything you bring in, take back with you,” said Higgins. “If a trash receptacle is available, please use it accordingly.”
“The whole philosophy of leaving only footprints and Leave No Trace needs to be at the forefront to keep the Smoky Mountains beautiful for many years to come so the next generations can enjoy the park as we do now,” he said.
How you can help ‘Save Our Smokies’
As Braden began noticing the excess trash along the road, he reached out to a friend of his who ran a Facebook group called Save Our Smokies.
We put together a small crew and picked up trash and litter from Newfound Gap and about 1/2 mile on US 441 back towards Gatlinburg,” said Braden.
“We only collected for about 2 hours, but quickly had a truckload. That’s when I realized this was a BIG problem. The trash and litter over the embankments are worse than the litter lacing the roadsides.”
Since September, Braden and his allies have removed six truckloads of abandoned camping equipment and trash from Max Patch.
Now, Braden and his fellow volunteers are calling on more people to get involved.
The group hosts organized cleanups. Supplies are requested via an Amazon registry where volunteers can also donate items such as vests, gloves and trash bags.
Braden said it’s also important for visitors to know that the Smokies has a limited staff.
“We want as many volunteers as we can get to help,” said Braden. “The park service is [too] understaffed and under budget to be able to handle this on their own.”
Guests at the Smoky Mountains are advised to throw trash in the proper bins and (better yet), if you see litter on the ground, pick it up.
“That would be a tremendous help and a great way to show the park a little bit of love,” said Braden. “Also we ask visitors to abide by rules and regulations while in the park. Respect wildlife and other visitors.”
Visitors are encouraged to ‘Leave No Trace’
All hikers and visitors who visit the Great Smoky Mountains are advised to follow the principles of Leave No Trace, a mission that teaches and inspires people to enjoy the outdoors responsibly and help preserve plant and animal life.
When you are visiting the Smoky Mountains, practice the seven principles of leave No Trace, which include:
1. Plan ahead and prepare
Poor planning may result in unhappy campers, which inevitably leads to more damage to cultural resources.
2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
Stay on trails when you explore the outdoors. However, if you must travel off-trail, consider surface durability. Rock, sand and gravel and considered durable.
3. Dispose of waste properly
Proper disposal of human waste is important to avoid water pollution and disease.
Follow the mantra of “pack it in, pack it out.” Do not leave any trash or garbage.
4. Leave what you find
Leave plants, rocks and artifacts where you find them.
5. Minimize campfire impacts
The natural appearance of some areas has been degraded due to the overuse of fires. Consider these principles when determining if you should build a fire.
6. Respect wildlife
Loud noises and quick movements are stressful to animals. Never get close to, feed, or touch a wild animal.
Remember, being too close to a bear within the Great Smoky Mountains is illegal.
7. Be considerate of other visitors
Everyone deserves to enjoy the outdoors. Reduce any excessive noise.
For more information about Leave No Trace and its mission, visit the website.