Anderson Design Group Interviews Great Smoky Mountains Association!

Anderson Design Group Interviews Great Smoky Mountains Association!

As artists and wilderness explorers, our passion is to venture into the 63 American national parks, photograph and document the wonder of these natural places, and share our enthusiasm for the parks by creating original, high-quality poster art.

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. Because we believe strongly in preserving the parks for future generations to enjoy, we're always looking for opportunities to support the conservancies, associations, foundations, and friend groups that protect the parks.

To raise awareness for the important educational work, conservation, youth involvement, and preservation activities in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we took some time this week to sit down with Laurel Rematore, CEO of Great Smoky Mountains Association.

Great Smoky Mountains Association

ADG: “Great to have you with us, Laurel! Let me start by asking, what is Great Smoky Mountains Association?

Laurel: “Happy to be here! We provide educational programs and services in and around GSMNP. The most visible way we assist the park is by operating educational bookstores in the park’s visitor centers. The second way we assist the park is by publishing over 100 books, maps, DVDs, and pamphlets about the park, which form part of our retail merchandise. The third way we assist the park is by administering individual and business membership programs, which then serve as informed constituencies for the park and GSMA. One of our publications is our twice-yearly magazine called Smokies Life, which is a coveted benefit of membership. Altogether, GSMA employs nearly 100 people, about 75 of whom are helping run our bookstore operations. We also donate funds each year to the park. Last year, we donated over $1.5 million to the National Park Service!”

Publications Associate Aaron Searcy copy-editing the 2022 fall issue of Smokies Life. A biannual publication, Smokies Life is one of the main benefits for GSMA members. Photo by Emily Webb.

ADG: “Fantastic! Is your group also in charge of programs and activities outside the most-visited national park? How does your group interact with the broader community?”

Laurel: “GSMA operates educational bookstores in three gateway communities, the Gatlinburg Welcome Center, the Townsend Visitor Center, and in Bryson City, North Carolina. We also belong to the local Chambers of Commerce. We're also a part of the Safe Passage Fund Coalition, which aims to implement wildlife crossings on a 26-mile section of Interstate 40 outside the park. When animals travel outside of the park to seek food, shelter, and mates, they often have to cross I-40, which puts them in danger. We're advocating for and working with partners on creating safe wildlife crossings, which can take many forms such as culverts, underpasses, overpasses, and fencing. As five bridges are replaced in the Pigeon River Gorge over the next five years, modifications will be implemented by the department of transportation to make the road more permeable for wildlife and safer for drivers.”

In 2021, GSMA published A Search for Safe Passage, a book written to teach young readers about wildlife crossings. Pictured is Frances Figart, Safe Passage author and GSMA creative director, sharing the book with a family at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva, NC. Photo by Janet McCue.

ADG: “That's such a great idea. Wildlife definitely needs a way to pass in and out of the park safely! What else are you working on in the local communities?”

Laurel: “We're also involved with the Smokies BearWise task force, which aims to reduce human–bear conflicts in the communities bordering Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We are a group of business leaders and local residents who want to ensure that our bears remain wild and our visitors and residents can safely co-exist with the black bears in the area. The National Park Service and TN Wildlife Resources Agency are helping inform our work.”

ADG: “Very cool. And how did Great Smoky Mountains Association get its start? What's the story behind the birth of your group?”

Laurel: “Our group was formed as part of a wave of cooperating associations. They began in 1923 with the Yosemite Museum Association, which later became the Yosemite Conservancy. Shortly after the National Park Service was formed in 1916, park rangers realized that park visitors wanted to buy informational materials and educational books about the parks. Given that rangers had their hands full with their work in the parks, the earliest purpose of organizations like ours was to publish information about the parks and to reinvest profits back into the park. Great Smoky Mountains Association was formed in 1953. (We'll celebrate our 70th anniversary next year!)”

GSMA operates 11 visitor center bookstores and visitor contact stations in and around Great Smoky Mountains National Park and employs between 80 and 100 staff depending on the season. Pictured from left: Ben Parker, Ben Anderson, Ila Hatter, Ruth Conners, Matt Drauszewski, Ashley Mahan, and Barry Hipps. Photo by Quintin Ellison.

ADG: “That's amazing. It's a really great model. What are some of the projects you're most proud of?”

Laurel: “I'm proud of our award-winning books, and some of our books keep getting reprinted because they're so popular! We have a cookbook that's been around for decades because it features recipes from the Euro-American settlers who lived in the area before it became a national park. We also launched a podcast miniseries called Sepia Tones, and we're constantly looking for new ways to introduce people to the park, in-person or digitally. We believe that whenever we get someone to fall in love with the Great Smoky Mountains, they'll become another person who wants to preserve the park and get others to do the same. That's how we ensure these beautiful places are here for generations.”

Graphic Designer Emma Oxford illustrates a tardigrade for a page of the Species-a-Day perpetual calendar, the sales of which benefit park partner Discover Life in America. The Smoky Mountain Water Bear is one of the new-to-science species discovered in the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory managed by DLiA. Photo by Frances Figart/GSMA.

ADG: “That's so true. It really is about informing and educating the public about the parks, and getting them to become avid park fans and avid park supporters. What are some of the other projects your team has worked on?”

Laurel: “Quite a few! We converted an old Civilian Conservation Corps bathroom near Clingmans Dome into a visitor center. We also built and donated to the park the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, in 2011. Over the years we provided funding to construct many important park facilities including the Twin Creeks Science and Education Center and the Collections Preservation Center. Back in the 1970s, we built and donated to the park the Cades Cove Visitor Center.”

Matt Drauszewski, North Carolina senior store manager, assists Spence Davis at the 2022 GSMA Members Weekend. The annual event rotates between locations in North Carolina and Tennessee and features educational sessions, keynote speakers, and opportunities for GSMA staff and members to socialize. Photo by Valerie Polk/GSMA.

ADG: “I understand your group helps fund and manage research and preservation. What would be an example of such a project? And why are such projects in our national parks so important?”

Laurel: “Yes, preservation is a big part of what we do, particularly with preserving the cultural history of the park. We're really proud of an NPS-led research project we're helping to fund called the African American Experiences in the Smokies project that seeks to discover and document the stories and histories of African Americans who made their homes here, visited here, or worked here.”

ADG: “Love hearing that, Laurel. It's so important that peoples who were robbed of a spotlight in the past get recognized today. What are some of the other educational programs your group is involved in?”

Laurel: “One of our longest-running educational programs is the Parks as Classrooms program. Nearby Pi Beta Phi Elementary School in Gatlinburg has a GSMA employee embedded in the school. She ensures students have about 40 experiences in the park between first and sixth grade! We see great results from it. For example, that program has been ongoing for some time, and Grant Fisher, GSMNP park ranger and author of Fishes of the Smokies, was a student in the Parks as Classrooms Program back in the day!”

GSMA CEO Laurel Rematore (right) and Deborah Williams in the Sugarlands Visitor Center natural history exhibit area. Laurel was recruited to GSMA and arrived from California in January 2016. She is motivated by her love of our national parks and her recognition that public lands and the agencies that manage them need effective partners now more than ever. Photo provided by GSMA.

ADG: “That story really lends itself to your mission of getting people informed and excited about the parks. One day, a young student is having his first experience in the park thanks to your program, and years later he's authoring books about the aquatic life in the park! Love it. And what does the future hold for Great Smoky Mountains Association?”

Laurel: “We have big plans for the future. We want to take everything we're doing on the park's educational, research-based, historical preservation, and information side and expand in those areas significantly.”

GSMA is a member of the Public Lands Alliance, a nonprofit organization that supports and connects public lands partners through education, training, and an annual conference. GSMA staff and board members attended the 2020 conference in Washington, DC. Pictured from left are Ed McAlister, board member; Barbara Muhlbeier, former board member; Karen Key, design team manager; Brenda Ownby, assistant retail director; Laurel Rematore, CEO; Stephanie Kyriazis, NPS chief of resource education; Susan Sachs, NPS education branch chief; Mitch Crisp, board chair; Dawn Roark, retail director; Anna Zanetti, former Friends of the Smokies staff person; Ellis Bacon, former board member. Photo provided by GSMA.

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?”

Laurel: “I came to the job with the fundamental understanding that public lands belong to all of us and require our collective stewardship. If we don't care about the parks, they won't get funding, and they'll just fade away. The National Park Service tells the American story through both its natural and cultural history. But that storytelling is not going to happen unless everyone cares about the parks, and GSMA is in the business of helping people understand and care about these places.”

ADG: “We couldn't agree more with those sentiments, Laurel. Thanks for sitting down with us today!”

Laurel: “Thanks for having me!”

The Importance of Supporting National Park Associations and Friend Groups

You can learn more about Great Smoky Mountains Association at their website. Their store has a rich selection of educational materials, books, toys, and games. And if you want to support their work in perpetuity, you can become a member and attend special events, educational programs, and you can stay up-to-date with a membership-included subscription to Smokies Life.

If you represent a national park association, foundation, natural history association, friends group, conservancy, or preservation association that works in any of the 63 American national parks, contact us today to set up 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.

-Ren Brabenec
Anderson Design Group Staff Writer

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