Cherokee, NC – On Saturday, September 24, National Park Service Director Chuck Sams traveled to Great Smoky Mountains National Park to commemorate National Public Lands Day (NPLD) by thanking volunteers for their stewardship in America’s most visited National Park. Rear Admiral Denise Hinton, U.S. Deputy Surgeon General, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed; National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) President and CEO Meri-Margaret Deoudes; and Superintendent Cassius Cash also provided remarks at the kickoff event that highlighted the significance of our public lands for the health and wellbeing of visitors.
“National Parks have long been recognized as spaces for people to develop life-long connections to healthy, outdoor activities,” said Director Sams. “I am honored to be here on the ancestral lands of the Cherokee people, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to thank people for their stewardship and care for one of our amazing parks.”
The connection between the health of our public lands and the health of the public has been recognized since 1918 when the Director of the National Park Service and the U.S. Surgeon General signed an interagency agreement that created one of the oldest agreements between government agencies. Through this agreement, the agencies have been working together for more than 100 years to promote health and prevent disease by sharing public health expertise.
“We know that physical activity has many health benefits, “said Rear Admiral Denise Hinton, U.S. Deputy Surgeon General. “Getting outdoors, connecting to nature and volunteering can help reduce stress and improve your emotional well-being and your physical health. I am proud to be here from the Office of the Surgeon General, in partnership with the National Park Service, to promote our parks as one of the greatest health resources available to our nation.”
NPLD provided a strong backdrop to celebrate the many health benefits of National Parks. Since 1994, NEEF has coordinated NPLD and partnered with federal, local, and state partners to bring out thousands of volunteers who help restore and improve public lands around the country. Held annually every fourth Saturday in September, NPLD is the nation’s largest single-day volunteer event for public lands.
“Spending time in nature has proven benefits for both mental and physical well-being—improving short-term memory, concentration, and creativity while reducing the effects of stress and anxiety,” said Meri-Margaret Deoudes, CEO and President of NEEF. “In this way, volunteering on National Public Lands Day is a great opportunity to care for our public lands and to spend time with family and friends while enjoying the many benefits that come from connecting with nature.”
Nearly 100 volunteers served across the park as part of NPLD. Trail volunteers spread 40 tons of gravel along the popular multi-use Oconaluftee River Trail. The Little River Chapter of Trout Unlimited and Save our Smokies volunteer groups removed more than 100 pounds of trash from roadsides and rivers, while also removing graffiti from scenic overlooks. High school students from Cherokee Central Schools served by gathering scientific data as part of a Citizen Science project at the Appalachian Highlands Learning Center. And volunteers provided Leave No Trace information to nearly 1,000 visitors at Sugarlands and Oconaluftee Visitor Centers and Discover Life in America helped visitors download the iNaturalist app to assist in scientific data collection.
“National Public Lands Day is a unique opportunity for people to give of their time, talent and resources by engaging in volunteer work within the National Parks and local public lands,” said Principal Chief Sneed. “A day to reconnect with our community’s environment, and in doing so, reestablishing our connection to the land and resources that provide all that we need for mental, physical and emotional well-being. I encourage everyone to participate in stewardship of our lands – today, tomorrow and for generations to come.”
Director Sams, Rear Admiral Hinton, NEEF CEO Deoudes, and other leaders participated in a Smokies Hikes for Healing hike led by Superintendent Cash to bring awareness to the importance of our public lands for mental health and healing. In 2020, Superintendent Cash created this special hiking series, led by trained facilitators, to provide an opportunity for small groups of people from differing backgrounds to come together in a healing space to discuss tough issues.
“As an African American man and son of a police officer, I found myself overwhelmed with the challenges we faced in 2020 and the endless news cycle that focused on racial unrest,” said Superintendent Cash. “My medicine for dealing with this stress was a walk in the woods, in which I found myself inspired, refocused, and recentered. And, because of that, I felt called to share that experience with others. I brought together our team to create an opportunity for people to come together for sharing, understanding, and healing.”
For more information about Smokies Hikes for Healing, please visit the park website at
https://www.nps.gov/grsm/learn/news/park-shares-highlights-of-smokies-hikes-for-healing-program.htm. In addition, more resources for using National Parks for healthy experiences can be found at the National Park Service website at https://www.nps.gov/subjects/healthandsafety/healthy-parks-healthy-people-resources.htm. The site provides a collection of toolkits, guides, and workbooks to see the impact of Healthy Parks Healthy People. You can download any of the documents on this page to see how parks are being put to work as a health resource for social, environmental, and financial benefits.