Anderson Design Group Interviews Friends of the Smokies!

Anderson Design Group Interviews Friends of the Smokies!

As artists and wilderness explorers, our passion is to venture into the 63 American National Parks, photograph and document these wonderful natural places, and share our enthusiasm for the parks by creating original poster art.

Truly America’s best idea, the National Parks were created to preserve America’s natural beauty and cultural history, with each park representing a significant chapter in the great American story. We believe strongly in preserving the parks for future generations, so we’re always seeking new opportunities to support the conservancies, associations, foundations, and friend groups that protect the parks.

To raise awareness for the important educational work and conservation activities in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we sat down with Dana Soehn, President and CEO at Friends of the Smokies.

Friends of the Smokies

ADG: “Let me start by asking, what is the Friends of the Smokies? If you have an elevator pitch for what your group does, what would that be?”

Dana: “Friends of the Smokies is a passionate community dedicated to protecting and preserving the beauty of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We like to think of our role as being one that, ‘Raises funds and friends.' Over the last 30 years, we’ve raised $91 million for the park to fund scientific research, support trail rehabilitation, and create hands-on experiences for the young and old. We’re ensuring the protection of this national treasure with the help of the more than 4,000 Friends who contribute each year to park preservation and protection.”

ADG: “Amazing. What are some details of your organization that folks should know about?”

Dana: “All National Parks can have a philanthropic agreement with a nonprofit partner. Our group was created for this purpose in 1993, and our sole mission is to support the park. Each year the park's superintendent presents a list of the most critically needed funds for that year’s projects to Friends of the Smokies. Our Board of Directors reviews those needs and then commits to raising funds for them. For example, in 2024 we’ve committed to raise $3.7 million to support 73 projects. The Friends are part of anything that someone loves about the park because, in addition to raising money and organizing volunteers to tackle park preservation and protection, our group is also deeply involved in improving the visitor experience for everyone who visits the park.”

ADG: “What are some examples of projects Friends of the Smokies has worked on?”

Dana: “One of our flagship programs is the Trails Forever program. This program restores the park’s most iconic trails, including the Ramsey Cascades Trail in the Greenbrier section. That's one of the most popular trails in the park because it takes visitors through an old growth forest to an iconic waterfall. Forever Places is another flagship program. 

This one focuses on preserving the historic treasures, landscapes, and structures across the park. In 2024, that work will include improvements on the Little Greenbriar Schoolhouse, Messer Barn, and Palmer House. We also support scientific research in the park, including conservation work to preserve indigenous species. For example, the Smokies have the largest grove of surviving, old-growth hemlock trees in the U.S. thanks to conservation work our group funded to help protect the trees from invasive hemlock woolly adelgids. We also help by investing in the next generation of park stewards by funding youth education in the park through college internships, K-8 classroom curriculum, and summer programming.”

The photos below depict Trails Forever volunteers and what one trail looks like now, compared to how it looked before the team rebuilt the trail.

ADG: “I understand you organize activities and programs within Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but is your group also in charge of programs and activities outside the park? How does your group interact with the community?”

Dana: “Much of our work is done outside of the park. We host fundraising events throughout the gateway communities, sharing stories about donor impact. We do host some in-park opportunities, like the Trails Forever Hiking Series, where we take donors on hiking experiences to see the direct benefits of their contributions. We also organize the iconic annual Cades Cove Loop Lope, a 5k/10-mile run. Last year, 750 runners came from 27 states for it. We also host the Plein Air Smokies Event, where park visitors interact with artists who make one-of-a-kind paintings in the Smokies for one week. All the art is sold in one day at a reception in the local community to support park programs and projects.” 

The photo below was taken in Cades Cove by ADG founder Joel Anderson on one of his many research trips as his art team prepared to create a series of poster art about the Smokies.

ADG: “How did Friends of the Smokies get its start? What’s the story behind the birth of your group?”

Dana: About 30 years ago, a few locals from Sevier County were hiking in the Smokies. They hiked to an iconic location, the Mount Cammerer Historic Fire Tower. It was in really bad shape, and it was just one of 100 historic structures in the park that was falling into disrepair. They called the park superintendent who explained to them that he simply didn’t have the funding to address the much-needed work. He invited the Sevier County locals to help him create a philanthropic organization, which came to be known as Friends of the Smokies.

There’s a funding gap between what the park gets from the federal government and what it needs to maintain the park. It’s a 500,000-acre park that always needs trail restoration and other infrastructure improvements. Most people don’t know this, but just as an example, the park has 27 wastewater treatment centers! So there's a lot of infrastructure within the park that needs to be supported, especially considering it’s the most visited park in the country; it receives 12-14 million visitors annually! That’s a lot of humans using the park, so maintenance, preservation, upkeep, improvements, and conservation are all significant needs.”

ADG: “How else does that high visitation make the need for funding even more clear?”

Dada: “Well, most National Parks have opportunities to charge for certain uses to bolster their funding, like concessions, campground fees, entrance fees, etc. The Smokies do not have some of those tools (like a large concession program). Lodging and restaurants are located outside the park in the gateway communities. And that’s great! The gateway communities thrive to the tune of $2 billion in economic benefit due to park visitation. But that does leave a gap in funding for the park itself. That is where Friends of the Smokies comes in to provide the needed money for park restoration and conservation. Anything from trail renovations that can take 1-2 years to complete to funding bus transportation and educational programming for children to explore and learn in the park... the Friends step up to fund the big stuff.”

Below is a historic photo of an old growth forest in the park that is still preserved today, along with a 2017 photo shot in the Big Creek area, featuring thriving old growth trees.

ADG: “What are some of the projects your group has funded that stand out to you?”

Dana: “More than 50% of the U.S. population lives within a day’s drive of the park, and since Covid, we’ve seen a huge spike in visitation as people seek the freedom of a National Park experience. Last year, the park superintendent wanted to improve accessible experiences inside the park to ensure the park was providing inclusive opportunities for people of all abilities. The park has 850 miles of trails, which is remarkable, but there was only one full-access trail, the Sugarland Valley Nature Trail. The park is known for its rich cultural and historic structures, so the superintendent asked us to support the creation of an all-access trail to the oldest structure in the park, the John Oliver Cabin, built in 1822. Friends of the Smokies raised $250,000, including a grant from the National Park Foundation, to create an 8-foot-wide paved trail that leads people of all abilities about three-quarters of a mile back to the John Oliver Cabin. But that was just the beginning. 'What about the other trails?' we asked ourselves. Since completing the all-access trail to the John Oliver Cabin, we’ve also worked to create six different group-led, all-access experiences, and we partnered with Catalyst Sports and the National Environment and Education Foundation to secure GRIT-style accessibility chairs for visitors to use. Now, several trail systems are more accessible to all, which means everyone can enjoy the national treasure that is the Smokies. We expanded the all-access campaign to include creating kayak and bike experiences in 2024.”

The photo below depicts park visitors taking part in the Adaptive Adventures Program.

ADG: “Given the extensive list of projects your group is working on, how do you enlist the help of the community in these projects? Do you organize volunteers?”

Dana: “Absolutely! Creating and organizing volunteering opportunities is a big part of our day-to-day. The Trails Forever program has a volunteer contingent that meets every Wednesday to work on the trails. That’s a great way for folks to step in and get hands-on with the park.”

ADG: “What goes on in the educational side of Friends of the Smokies? What are some of the educational programs your team is invested in? How do these help promote preservation/conservation in the park?”

Dana: “Each year, the Friends of the Smokies funds many of the park’s educational programs that teach 15,000 students annually. Students receive official, curriculum-based programming, like science and history, all taught to meet Tennessee and North Carolina standards for K-8th grade. There’s also specialized programming for high school students. We also fund Parks IN the Classrooms, which brings rangers to the gateway communities to teach in local schools. We also fund summertime programming for students."

The photos below are from a Parks as Classrooms event.

ADG: “Looking to the future, what are the short-term and long-term goals for Friends of the Smokies? Where do you guys see yourselves in 5 years? 10 years? What do you hope to be working on a decade from now?”

Dana: “Great Smoky Mountains National Park will turn 100 in 2034, so we have a milestone moment of opportunity. We’re an organization that leads people to become lifelong stewards of the park and its history, so we’re going to celebrate the milestones that led to the creation of the park. People lived in and around the area when it became a park, and it was their grassroots efforts that made the Great Smoky Mountains into a National Park. For us, we just hope to carry on their legacy.”

ADG: “One last question, if there would be one thing about your group or about National Park conservation/restoration/education generally that you’d want the broader public to know, what would that be?”

Dana: “Just because a National Park is protected with a boundary does not mean that it’s protected from the challenges that face it. It’s up to us as people who love and enjoy the park to participate in actively caring for it and stewarding the park, not only so we can enjoy it, but so future generations can as well.”

ADG: “Wise words indeed, Dana! Thanks for sitting down with us today!”

Dana: “Thanks for having me!”

The Importance of Supporting National Park Associations and Friend Groups

You can learn more about Friends of the Smokies at their website. If you want to support their work, you can become a friend of the park.

If you represent a National Park Association, Foundation, Natural History Association, Friend Group, Conservancy, or Preservation Association that works in any of the 63 American National Parks, contact us today to schedule an interview! Just email

In the meantime, we’ll get back to creating vintage poster art of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and other National Parks. Let’s enjoy these beautiful, historic places and do our part to preserve them for future generations.

One more thing: Have you seen our Great Smoky Mountains National Park hardcover coffee table book and coloring book? Historian Daniel Pierce collaborated with ADG founder Joel Anderson to publish these gorgeous books full of original artwork, photos, maps, historical information, and more. A portion of the proceeds from book sales are donated to Friends of the Smokies and to the National Parks Foundation.

-Ren Brabenec
Anderson Design Group Staff Writer

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