National Park Week: “A great time to celebrate what’s right with America.”

Next week is National Park Week. It’s a great time to celebrate what’s right with America — to reflect on the beauty, magic and serenity of the America outdoors.

Entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and most of Tennessee’s national parks is always free, but over these next two weekends– April 15,16, 22 and 23 — anyone can visit any national park in this country for free.

I’ve come to realize that I was one of the luckiest guys in the world because I grew up in Maryville, Tenn., which means I grew up next to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

When you grow up next to a national park — you really grow up in the park. You spend your weekends and special times there, and the park looms large in many of your childhood memories. I remember, when I was 15, my dad dropped me and two of my friends at Newfound Gap on the day after Christmas when there was three feet of snow on the ground and said, “I’ll pick you up in Gatlinburg” — which was about 15 miles from Newfound Gap. He picked us up later that afternoon.

During National Park Week, the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation will partner together to provide events and opportunities for new and returning visitors who visit our national parks across the country, such as joining a national park ranger for a hike, witnessing reenactments of the American Revolutionary War or participating in Junior Ranger Day — where kids can enjoy a variety of hands-on activities, games and art projects to help them learn about their national parks.

We talk a lot about the importance of science and math, but according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, most high school seniors in America score the worst in history. I cannot think of a better way to encourage the study of U.S. history and what it means to be an American than to explore our country’s national parks.

Last year marked the 100th anniversary of the United States National Park Service — and to celebrate, we honored the employees of the National Park Service who keep the national parks beautiful and safe, who clear the brush from the walking paths or relocate the bears who wander out of the wilderness areas.

I celebrated the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service by hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Tennessee students and Cassius Cash, Superintendent of the Smokies.

Take the time to talk with a park employee when you visit — I’m sure you’ll hear some stories.

When I was governor in 1984, I spent a couple of days hiking in the Smokies to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the park. They assigned a ranger to watch me, Dwight McCarter. Dwight has more stories than anybody, and some of his best ones are even true! He has searched for 120 lost people, he has tried to find every airplane that crashed in the park, and he’s traced the route of the Hawkins-Meigs Line that was supposed to establish the boundary between the Cherokees and the settlers.

It is my hope that Americans across the country will take some time next week to visit one of our country’s many national parks. I believe it is our responsibility to ensure that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and all other national parks around the country, are protected and preserved so future generations can enjoy them, just like we have.

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