May 29, 2024

UM Students Visit Great Smoky Mountains on Class Trip 

For University of Montevallo students taking the National Parks and Public Lands class this year, spring break brought the opportunity to get outside the classroom and experience the wonder of national parks in person. Dr. Scott Turner, professor of political science, took the class to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, where they spent the week hiking the trails, appreciating time in the great outdoors and learning about the park’s rich cultural history.

“Parks are wonderful lenses to zero in on all kinds of different topics,” Turner said. “Whether it’s natural science, social issues, outdoor recreation — you name it.”

The class, which is a cross between political science, environmental studies and an honors course, is taught every other year and involves hiking, conservation, park management and history. Turner has been teaching the National Parks and Public Lands class since 2014 and started making the trip part of the class in 2016. It is funded by the Deborah D. and William F. Denson III Scholarship.

The group is hosted by the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, a residential environmental learning center located in the national park that hosts school groups, summer camps and other activities. Turner learned of it after meeting the institute’s former director at a seminar at Yellowstone National Park.

“He was able to put me in touch with them, and I started a conversation about this class and what my goals were,” Turner said. “So, they developed a curriculum suited to us.”

This time around, Turner asked his students to make a no phones commitment in order to enjoy their surroundings in nature to its fullest.

Arriving at the park after a five-hour carpool drive, Turner and his students immediately set out on a hike to a waterfall. After dinner in the cafeteria, they visited a nearby mountain cemetery to survey the gravestones. The dates ranged from the 19th century to present-day — a reminder that the park was built on inhabited land where local families still have burial rights. They were also encouraged to take time to sit quietly and listen to the sounds of nature around them, but all they could really hear was the wind picking up.

That first night, a devastating windstorm hit the park. After a sleepless night, the group woke up to a fallen tree on the back roof of the cafeteria, another blocking the road out of Tremont and many large, healthy trees that had been ripped from the ground at the root. The park had to close temporarily as cleanup crews and contractors came in to clean out an estimated 600 trees.

“Nature has its own agenda,” Turner said. “We were told that was the worst storm they had had in decades. Everybody came out safe and sound, but just to see the power of nature and then how quickly the park responded to get it cleaned up so the tourists could return was interesting.”

Although Turner and his students had to rearrange their itinerary a bit due to the cleanup efforts, they still managed to have a good time exploring the park throughout the week. They visited the high country for a two-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail, where they met thru-hikers (people who had started on the trail in Georgia) and ate lunch at the spot where President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the park in 1940. They hiked to the Little Greenbrier School and the Walker Sisters’ home and competed in an old-fashioned spelling bee. One of their hikes was even led by a UM alum, Alexis Jacob ’23, a former student of Turner’s who now works as a teacher naturalist for the institute.

The trip also offered them some insight into the benefits of environmental protection. When Turner first started the trip almost a decade ago, they visited a high elevation point that offered a great view of the mountains in the distance, but were told that the view had decreased from 30 miles to about 15 miles due to pollution from coal-fired power plants in the region. This time, however, their guide informed them that with the help of pollution controls, the visibility has increased to 34 miles.

“That was a really great piece of information for the students who might think that things only get worse and worse for the environment,” Turner said. “But there are interventions that take place and, in some ways, we can improve things.”

On the last night of the trip, the group formed a big circle and shared their reflections from the trip before ending the night with a game of hide-and-seek in the dark.

“Some of them almost talked about it like it was life changing,” Turner said. “They just had an amazing experience.”