Reappropriating the Mountains: An analysis of Great Smoky Mountains National Park during a 35-day federal shutdown

Authors: Patrick Sweatt*, Northern Arizona University
Topics: Protected Areas, Geographic Theory, Rural Geography
Keywords: political ecology, protected areas, national parks, conservation, governance, political instability, production of space, shutdown
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/7/2021
Start / End Time: 4:40 PM / 5:55 PM
Room: Virtual 43
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


National parks are essential fixtures in conservation plans although they are intrinsically tied to the fortunes of the nations in which they are established. In December 2018, the federal government of the United States began a 35-day partial shutdown, destaffing national parks across the country in a de facto governance lapse. This study uses a political ecological analysis to examine how political instability in the federal government allowed space to be reappropriated by different environmental subjects in Great Smoky Mountains National Park during the 2018-2019 partial shutdown. Interviews with park staff, community members, adjacent governmental institutions and non-profits were conducted and revealed a novel set of relationships between human and non-human actors and how governance failures produce new landscapes. As federal authority waned during the 35 days that the park was left open but unattended, volunteer stewardship of some areas of the park was undertaken by local communities and non-profits while wildlife freed from human oversight remade the landscape to meet its own needs. The landscape imaginary that has informed park management since its founding was found to be a persistent theme in how the shutdown manifested, even as it was challenged by the park rangers’ absence. In a climate of increasing political polarization at the highest levels of the United States government, further shutdowns seem likely and this paper probes how Great Smoky Mountains National Park was imagined in the past and how it may be transformed in the future.

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