Tragedy of the Commons, Chaos at Cades Cove

When I grew up, thinking third or fourth grade in my hazy, lazy memory, a school teacher attempted a writing prompt game. Build a tale! Craft an epic novel! Once upon a time, the man wearing red, tattered robes trekked across the desert, and the young prince followed … And then the first lucky kid who drew their name out of a hat took a crack at the following sentence. And then the next. Did your schoolmarm or headmaster do the same? If not, you’d finish with an amazing work of fiction to close out the punchline. Other times, well, silliness is ok too–to be a child again. The means matter when you’re seven, and, really, they should matter no matter what you’re working on in life. Moral compasses and playful processes serve an essential purpose.

On a recent trip to Smokey Mountain National Park’s famous Cades Cove, I felt like a well-planned itinerary went astray, somewhat like those same stories from grade school. Here, a sunny walk in the park ended on the moon with Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 century.

Those Wild and Crazy Bears

Most never experience the vacation powerhouse of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. If you’ve never heard of this quiet little town, I understand. I mean, the population sits at 4,004. However, fifteen million folks visited in 2021, which makes this one of the most visited locales in the United States. Yes, New Yorkers, rural Eastern Tennessee rivals even your overwhelming, disproportionate greatness based on news coverage. Now, if you arrive in the middle of the night due, few hotspots are open late. Somehow, I found myself at Ole Red, of Blake Shelton fame. And yes, it’s everything you ever wanted and thought it would be. Order the beer cheese dip; it’s hard not to because every meal has the side embedded in the fine print. After this late-night detour of raucous music, the family and I managed to wake at the crack of dawn. Doughnuts help.

A Sugarlands hike to the summit finished at a waterfall, hugging the hillside amongst the foliage of orange and red glory. This is a worthy trek. But on the way down, we ran into three bears goldilocks style. If you are a lover of Black Bears, the Smokeys are the place for you. I’ve run across them on half of the hikes I’ve taken on the mountainside. Awesome or dumb luck? I’ll let you be the judge. On this fine morning, a group of hikers waited on the opposite side of the trail. A three-way standoff developed between Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes. We waited patiently.

And then, out of nowhere, a woman in designer beige emerged and yelled, “Go away, bear!” She extended her arms to the sky. Shouted, “Go away! Go away!” And then, “You git bear!”

At this point, I believed she might be crazy or rabid, who really knows? I’m all for standing ground but taking on a momma bear wouldn’t be my choice in this Choose Your Own Adventure. But the baton had been passed to the next storyteller. As the morning darkness cleared, I realized our savior, who had a destiny with death, turned out to play the role of park ranger. This was her day job. How often does she take on an immense animal that can reach 25 MPH over uneven ground? Two? More? This wouldn’t have been my approach, but she obviously knew what she was doing. Momma retreated into the forest, and her cubs huddled close behind.

But this half-hour delay warped the space-time continuum, just a hare. Do you know the setup on late-night television, or prime time FoxNews, about sleeping in, rushing to work, and missing an accident by minutes? But if you wouldn’t have slept in, what would have happened? This is a lighter version of those heavy moments where God or Marvel Universe Giant Robots alter your day, a slight nudge here or there. Misplaced car keys. A freak injury. The garbage truck blocking the driveway.

After rushing down the mountain to make up for lost time, I hopped behind the wheel (family still in one piece) and hurried to the other end of the park. The sun passed in the sky. Next stop, Cades Cove. This slow-running expressway runs by old churches, the first house built on the other side of the Appalachia in US History, and a host of spectacular trails. But, it’s one-way. Once you start the trek, there are few options to turn back. And the cars had already come to a standstill.

”Damn those three bears!”

I smacked the steering wheel. How could they not know I had a schedule to keep? Laughing at my own impatience, I waited. My family laughed at my pompous impatience too, well-deserved. As other vacation trekkers jumped out of their vehicles and started to march down the hilly roadway, I made the connection and realized the challenge. Either those bears ran from the Sugarlands and cut me off twenty miles later, or another cheerful momma bear posed for photos. I swore these were the same bears; they do move fast.

After an hour, a man wearing the over fifty uniform of khaki pants and salmon polo grumbled while complaining about how the feeding display had ended. I always marvel at how people flock to large animals in the wild.

When we later stopped to take the Abrams Trail, I felt like a home invader stealing porridge, taking in a waterfall while knowing the skittish animals watched out of sight. I should be thankful they are a little frightful for myself and those unawares hopping out to take pictures gleefully. Sadly, we care more for our Instagram shots than the animals and their homes.

An Ever-Growing Challenge

After finishing at the Cove, we reentered the parade back to our hotel. An hour passed. I tried to deploy all of my patience powers as I waited not to lose my mind. Deep breaths. Meditation. I mean, what could be the problem? Then, an idea came, and I cursed those bears. They somehow ran from the Sugarlands to Cades Cove and now had somehow cut me off on the way back. Did they want the cheese spread at Ole Red? Or, there is a new exhibit at the Ripley’s Museum? Maybe, it’s just one of those days.

I think I lost my mind as those waiting in the truck on stilts and van ahead ran into the woods to use the bathroom. What is a kid supposed to do if you’re in your Griswold Family truckster for hours? There isn’t much. When the visitor area came into view, I only shook my head. No, it wasn’t the bears. The problem is that you have to make a left turn onto a busy highway. There is no stoplight. Nobody directing traffic. With fifteen million visitors, left turns become hard. This is an infrastructure, funding, and what about my vacation syndrome rolled into one mass challenge of chaos. I thought I’d be back at our hotel for a late lunch, but a short drive of fifteen miles clocked in around four hours. Darned bears.

The Tragedy of the Commons

If you don’t know the economic theory story, imagine a common park near the turn of the century. The local farmers let their cattle graze, feasting on the grass and weeds. The lumberyard claims a series of walnut trees for sale. But nobody bothers to replant, mow, or curtail the comings and going of those who picnic along its hillside. Eventually, the hallowed ground beloved by all tumbles into an unstoppable spiral of disarray.

And that’s why I feel we are so close to our treasures turning into a travesty.

I called both of my Senators to explain the challenge of the road and the overwhelming capacity challenge. Although I have done little to zero research, the conspiratorial side of one’s brain has to wonder if the Disneyland style of businesses that litter the area lobby our elected officials to prohibit change.

But I think the problem is more complex. A quagmire between the state and federal government leads to no accountability. So, I received about what I expected. Both offices took down my information, or at least said as much, but never followed up or reached back out that they did anything.

Worse, one of our Senators spends more time asking troll-like questions to drive small-donor outrage than showing up to do their respective job. I care little about a left-leaning judge that will be confirmed no matter what or the drumbeat about non-existent CRT education hiding in Tennessee schools that only exists in the equally non-existent Twitterverse. Sigh.

The basic approach would be to add funding. And the Democrats received their wish to run the economy hot and printed more money in the last two years than at any time in recorded history. More. More. And more. If Nancy Pelosi can dish out a quarter billion for a National Park in California catering to far fewer than a million folks, what would the most visited park in America command? The data suggests we are comparing a few hundred thousand visitors to a high watermark of fifteen million-plus. Yet, the Smokies received less than 25 million.

One word comes to mind. Sub-Optimal. I’d say pathetic but that’s harsh.

With this level of support, you’d think our officials are doing everything in their power to destroy the place. But, frankly, it’s worse because the great State of Tennessee donated the land for the park. As part of the arrangement, there are rules prohibiting admission prices and other extravagances that Yellowstone, Acadia, and Yosemite can leverage. Even Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument charges a ten spot.

Without upkeep, to quote Johnny Cash, “I hear a train a coming…” Weather and black swan events come from the heavens. Living in the area, I can attest it’s close to rain forest type precipitation. No, it’s not quite Sitka, Alaska, but these are fields of green. However, the Smokies aren’t immune to fire. As I drafted this post, sadly, the park was actually burning. And yet, not even a press blurb from either Senator. Or a note from the office. I doubt they’ve lifted a finger to force the administration to send help.

Instead of a well-funded department equipped to handle a catastrophe, we have a group of local, caring elected officials. I’m guessing Nancy’s park has drones and robots that leap into action when heat sensors detect any anomaly. They should with this level of funding.

After the fire ended, I can say there was no national response. No declared emergency. The governor ended up making an appearance but only to berate the locals for not raking the leaves and caring for their land properly. Give him credit, he at least said something but eventually made his way back to Nashville to carry out the vital work of banning books. The Senators were basking in too much glory to say anything. No tweets or simple public statements lost in a blog reel.

So, where does this leave us?

Well, the park is trying. I’ve called. Note, each attempt took me about forty minutes to navigate the phone prompts to find the right person to discuss the challenges. But they are collecting feedback. So, give them what they need to save these places before the Tragedy of the Commons becomes a modern-day reality. And, perhaps, if enough people reach out to their elected officials they’ll begin to pay attention. Because … ”Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Dr. Seuss has a way with words, let’s remember these before one of our political parties ban another of his works too.


  • As of this writing, neither Senator Marsha Blackburn nor Bill Haggerty has a single post on their respective sites on the parks being overrun or referencing the fire.
  • The economic incentives of doing work real work on the Hill remain in question. It’s about raising money to give to the respective party system.
  • Favorite Hike, Abrams Trail.
  • Ole Red. The entertainment is solid.
  • Governor Lee surveys the damage.
  • Entrance fee challenges at the National Park.
  • Call the park for feedback.