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Higher Tennessee Specialty License Plate Sales Benefit Great Smoky Mountains National Park


The Tennessee "Friends of the Smokies" license plate. Image from Friends of the Smokies.

Results of third quarter contributions from specialty license plate sales to the non-profit Friends of the Smokies have been announced by the State of Tennessee, and the good news couldn't have come at a better time. Revenue for organizations that assist the park was impacted by the recent government shutdown, so rising sales from vehicle tags will help with lost retail sales.

Third quarter contributions from the plates to the Friends group were $114,012, the highest quarter of the current year, bringing total Tennessee specialty plate income for 2013 to over $388,000. When a Friends of the Smokies specialty plate is either purchased or renewed by a Tennessee motorist, $31 of the $35 fee goes toward supporting Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) through the partner organization.

“Our East Tennessee communities were greatly impacted during the government shutdown, and GSMNP was not exempt from the strain. With the peak of fall leaf color, October is the Smokies’ busiest month. It goes without saying that contributions from specialty license plate sales matter now more than ever to help the Park recover from this difficult time, “ explains Friends of the Smokies President Jim Hart.

Group Supports a Wide Variety of Projects in the Park

According to the group's website, the Friends of The Smokies "provided $1,032,893 to fulfill its commitment to support Resource Management and Science, Resource Education, Facility Management, and Resource and Visitor Protection" activities in the park.

Specific projects funded by the group include protection and treatment of eastern hemlock trees, support for the Appalachian Bear Rescue Center , maintenance and replacement of bear cables at 120 backcountry sites and shelters, providing Student Conservation Association interns, Parks as Classrooms program expansion and curriculum revisions, preservation of historic log cabins and churches, and funding for volunteer programs such as the Volunteer Visitor Assistance and Elk Bugle Corps.

An ongoing effort by the organization is $4 million Trails Forever endowment, which is funding a third permanent trail maintenance work crew to perform major trail reconstruction projects on the park's 800+ miles of hiking trails. This year's work has included the second phase of the reconstruction of the popular Chimney Tops Trail.

Smokies Specialty Tags Available for Both Tennessee and North Carolina

According to a Friends of the Smokies spokesperson, "You can purchase a Friends of the Smokies specialty license plate now, even if your current plate is not expired. Go to your Tennessee County Clerk’s office or to this state website. If you already have a Friends specialty plate, please continue to renew your registration."

A similar program by the State of North Carolina offers specialty tags from that state, and those sales also benefit the park through the Friends group. You can learn more about the options from both states at this link.


Great news. The Smokies could sure use the money.

The specialty license plate also says that the driver cares about the environment and about Great Smoky Mountains National Park.


The Friends of the Smokies turned their back on backpackers when the fee controversy arose so I discontinued my contributions to that organization in favor of the Southern Forest Watch that is suing the park over the fee. I know the Friends has done some good but I prefer not to have my donations go to building visitor centers like the one at Luftee. The president of the Friends group is a bit too cozy with the Superintendent and told some folks that he basically distributes funds at the discretion of the Superintendent. That may be a good model for the perceived needs of the NPS but not so good for the citizens who use the park and have no input. Yes I know they put up bear cables and now the park is charging backpackers to use them.

Tennessee also has a specialty license plate for the Appalachian Trial. Because of this "at times" odd relationship with the National Park Service, several Tennesseans have changed from the "Friends" specialty license plate to the "AT" specialty license plate.

One plus of these speciality plate programs is the ability of people to choose to support a group that appeals to them. In the case of the Friends of the Smokies, they have supported a lot of good work on trails, including their endowment fund that pays for a permanent trail crew and other projects that benefit a lot more day hikers (who don't pay a fee) than overnighters.

As to helping with the new visitor center, that's a fine facility that serves an enormous number of visitors - many more than will ever use backcountry trails. As is true for any organization, it's impossible to please everyone when it comes to choosing where to spend their money.

Hey, Jim- Thank you so much for the coverage you have given! Just one clarification. We do not operate the bookstores inside the park visitors centers, so we do not offer retail sales of interpretive eductaion products in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That's our friends over at the Great Smoky Mountains Association; they lost $550,000 during the 15 day shutdown. However, our in-park voluntary walk-up, drive-by donation boxes were inaccessible during the shutdown, and the closure also halted the Phase II work of the Trails Forever crew on Chimney Tops Trail for the remainder of the year. So, fulfillment of our mission and our fundraising ability were impacted by the shutdown, yes! - Holly S. (Friends of the Smokies)

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