"Missing Link" opening

Mother Nature treated Foothills Parkway motorists to a snow-covered mountain range view on Nov. 10, 2018, after the “Missing Link” section of the parkway was opened to the public.

After decades of hits and misses, the “Missing Link” is finally connected and the Foothills Parkway extending from Cthowee Lake in Blount County into Wears Valley in Sevier County is completed.

So the work to open up these magnificent Great Smoky Mountains National Park vistas to the motoring public is done, right?

Not exactly. The parkway itself is part of GSMNP, but the protected land extends only about 500 feet from each side of the parkway. Building road access to the scenic views was one thing, but protecting the splendor of those views is another. Some of those vistas are of mountains inside the Smokies proper, but much of it is viewed over private property unprotected from development.

That’s why people who want to raise awareness about the continued need for maintaining the beauty of these lands are holding “An Open Invitation for a Community Conversation.”

The conversation will be about preserving the scenic views opened up by the new roadway with the latest extension of the Foothills Parkway.

The event will be held at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 16, at the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center, 123 Cromwell Drive, Townsend.

The idea blossomed like it might for most people familiar with the Foothills Parkway — by driving it. Jeanie Hilten, a former member of the Foothills Land Conservancy board of directors, remembers the moment.

“My husband, Richard, and I were driving and enjoying the new Foothills Parkway and astounded with the views. We realized that the parkway, the protected area itself, is fairly narrow. We just thought if people are interested and committed to keeping these beautiful views, there might be some way that we could come together to protect the scenic views,” Hilten said.

That narrow area she referred to is the 500 or so feet on each side of the road that is actually in GSMNP when motorists look off the side of the Foothills Parkway at the scenery. The Hiltens wondered if there is a way to keep nature’s vision as it is seen from the parkway.

“That would maybe also protect forests and watershed and wildlife and help us to be good stewards of the land that we see from the Foothills Parkway. We thought we’d have a community meeting and call it a conversation. I think that’s a wonderful way to put it, to see the private landowners who might feel a responsibility for stewardship also.”

With GSMNP being the most-visited national park in America, there’s no doubt about the allure of the Smokies. Organizers of the “conversation” recognize that and are promoting the meeting by saying in an announcement, “With the understanding of our region’s popularity — both for its recreational aspect and as a draw to live and work here — perhaps its time do discuss how best to retain the scenic views, rural character, open spaces and wildlife corridors that we all know and love.”

Development already in place

That talk is timely with the newly opened 16-mile western portion of the Foothills Parkway that extends from Walland into Wears Valley.

Richard Hilten points out that when on the parkway and looking toward the park, most of that land in between is privately owned. He’s spotted construction underway from the new section of the parkway.

“We’ve already started to see a lot of roads and little developments coming up in there, and we think of why we go to the Smokies. It’s not to look at subdivisions, it’s to look at the grandeur. And some of those vistas today, looking into the valley, towards Wears Valley into the park, it still looks pretty much like you would imagine the Smokies community to look. But if you add 100,000 houses and driveways and swimming pools and (RVs) parked in driveways, it can only mar the vista and thus take away from what it is that people come here to see and enjoy,” he said.

The Hiltens are aware they are part of the populace that has come to the outskirts of the Smokies to live. They have a small farm in Walland. It’s not like they want to deprive people the use of their property.

“I live in a house. We understand people live in houses. The same as I drive a car and burn fuel and flush a commode. I try to be environmentally concerned as well as the next person, but there’s some things that are just too grand,” Richard Hilten said.

“Thankfully, back in the ’30s there were women and men who had the vision to set aside what we now know as Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Who would have imagined in those days that 10 million or 12 million visitors a year would come to share and see this view?”

Foothills Land Conservancy

Exactly so. Which is why the Foothills Land Conservancy was founded, to protect environmentally precious land from development. So why not just continue with that effort with this new section of the Foothills Parkway?

Bill Clabough, FLC executive director, is well aware. The Hilten’s and Billy Minser, also very active in conservation efforts, approached the conservancy about taking this on as an additional responsibility.

“For us our mission is land protection. We got started right here. But I realized really quickly what an overwhelming and huge project this could be. I needed to talk to the board about it,” Clabough said.

Talk they did. Consider they did. The conclusion was to pump the brakes.

“Even though it’s right at the top of our list, we needed to make sure we could still accommodate additional workload,” Clabough said.

Part of the consideration was the fact that FLC already has more than 300 potential conservancy participants from last year they still need to reach out to. That’s been the method of operation. People contact them. The idea of identifying and reaching out to maybe 1,000 or more landowners with property viewed from the new parkway section was an overwhelming task.

“We realized how important it was, but I think we also realized that we could be a partner, we could be a very supportive group. That we could do. From that, from many of our discussions with Jeannie and Richard and Billy and our board and staff, we came up with the idea to have this, like a town hall meeting and find out just how involved the community wanted to be in this effort.”

At this point, Clabough says he thinks the most feasible start would be to form a committee to head up the effort and determine the level of support.

“To me, that’s what Tuesday night is about. Is there community support? Is there a community initiative? People in the community willing to tackle this huge effort that we could be a part of?”

Clabough knows there are spectacular views now visible thanks to the new parkway miles. Thunderhead, Silers Bald, the crest of the Smokies. All government land. But the land in between isn’t public.

“We don’t get any government money,” Clabough said. “If people want to do it, that’s great. If they don’t, that’s the reason we live in Blount County and the state of Tennessee and America, isn’t it?”

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