Hard work yields results.
That might be the best way to assess the current increase in visitation to the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, which park superintendent Niki S. Nicholas attributes to a variety of factors — some of them outside the control of local park and community leaders and some of them very much the result of actions taken by those local leaders.
Visitation to the Big South Fork from January to July of this year was up 23.3 percent over the same time period in 2016. That comes on the heels of research finding that annual visitation to the park was up 6.5 percent in 2016, as compared to 2015.
“There is no one smoking gun, so to speak,” Nicholas said, pointing to cheap gas prices, public relations related to the National Park Service’s centennial celebration in 2016, and the affiliation of the BSF with the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, which the superintendent said is exposing a more urban audience to not only the BSF but its sister park in Morgan County, the Obed Wild & Scenic River.
And, Nicholas said, “a lot of changes we’re making are finally starting to pay off.”
A strategic advantage
There is no magic formula to drawing visitors to the Big South Fork, Nicholas said. “It’s not like chemistry, where you put A plus B and you get C. It doesn’t work like that.”
Instead, she said, the approach is a result of constantly “tinkering” to improve what works and fix what doesn’t.
And that doesn’t happen just by chance.
“We went into strategic planning mode about five years ago,” Nicholas said. “We have a five-year and a 10-year strategic plan.”
Nicholas said her entire staff does a retreat once a year, at which point they develop a plan for the next year and for the next five years.
After that, it’s up to the communities surrounding the Big South Fork to embrace and help implement what the park service is attempting to do.
“Some stuff you need to do and (the communities) want. That makes it easy,” Nicholas said. Other times, she added, it comes down to what she refers to as the half-a-loaf approach.
“Some people go, ‘I want this,’” Nicholas said. “The other side doesn’t want that at all. So you have to figure out what both sides want and you go with half a loaf. Maybe the next time you go for another half, and then you’re at 75 percent.”
‘A pleasure to work with’
One community where the BSF’s recent changes have been most visible has been in Scott County. From Memorial Day weekend through September, the Scott County Visitor Center in Huntsville is staffed with a National Park Service ranger on weekends. It’s one of four such outposts the BSF now has — others are located in Stearns, Rugby and Crossville — and it’s viewed as a win-win relationship: it allows Scott County to keep its visitor center open seven days a week, instead of just five, and it enables the BSF to have a park presence outside its boundaries.
“If you wait until they get all the way down into Bandy Creek or Blue Heron, you pretty much have a captive audience,” Nicholas said. But by maintaining a physical presence outside the park, the park service can reach more people. Just one example: Brimstone’s upcoming Paragon event. Thousands of out-of-towners will visit, many of whom have never heard of the Big South Fork. Some will stop by the visitor center in Huntsville, and there they’ll be greeted by a park ranger — who not only looks the part, down to his green hat, but who is armed with information about the park.
“People are driving by and saying, ‘Aaah!’” Nicholas said.
Another example of Scott County and the Big South Fork working together is a program that allows people interested in recreational kayaking to borrow a kayak — free of charge, except for a small service fee. That program is a result of federal grant money from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC first contacted Nicholas, who in turn contacted Scott County. The local chamber of commerce embraced the program, and Scott County Government purchased the kayaks. The chamber of commerce then partnered with a business — South Fork Tack in West Oneida — to administer the program and loan out the kayaks.
“We could’ve bought (the kayaks) and put them here, but we had a better idea,” Nicholas said. “All we did was connect (Scott County with the grant.”
Nicholas said Scott County is embracing its partnership with the BSF.
“Some communities really embrace it more than others,” she said. “Scott County has been a real joy to work with.”
In it for the long haul
In a field that is too often a revolving door of personnel who transfer in and out of jobs, Nicholas is practically a long-termer at the Big South Fork. She’s been on the job almost seven years, and that stability has enabled the BSF to implement many of the ideas that are currently coming to fruition.
“I’m in here for the long haul,” Nicholas said. “If you come in here and you’re looking to be gone in three years, you try to do everything at once.”
By taking the slow-and-steady approach, Nicholas said, you can earn the trust of the people you’re working with — including the communities surrounding the park. That doesn’t mean you won’t ruffle some feathers along the way, but sometimes feather-ruffling comes with the territory.
In Nicholas, the Big South Fork found a superintendent that was practically one of its own. She did a stint in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and at the Tennessee Valley Authority, and her husband is a native of Oak Ridge. She loved Historic Rugby before she married, but her husband introduced her to the Big South Fork.
“His dad brought all the kids up here all the time, between Obed and the Big South Fork,” Nicholas said. “Before I married my husband, my go-to place for fun was Rugby, and I thought it was amazing. Then when I got married, my husband and I would come up here all the time. Can you imagine being the superintendent of a place you always went to play?”
It is that passion for the Big South Fork that has helped steer Nicholas’ vision for the park.
“I keep talking about a string of pearls,” Nicholas said. “It’s great when people come here for the day. They’ll buy gas, they’ll stop and get a soda. But when people say this is a place you can stay for a couple of nights or do a week vacation, and you show there are multiple things to do, how do we make sure there’s something for everyone in the family?”
The Big South Fork has that, Nicholas said. Part of the solution to effectively marketing it is for the communities surround the park to take a regional approach rather than each fending for itself.
“If you think about the Big South Fork, we have this Victorian village in Rugby. We have this coal mining town in Blue Heron. We have amazing kayaking all the way through. And we’re at the end of the river. We have Lake Cumberland, and that has a whole other set of recreational opportunities. Not only do we have amazing horse trails, we have wagon riding in the park. We have the Sheltowee Trace, which is a national recreation trail. Just not too far way we have the Obed Wild & Scenic River, which is the only national park in the country with free rock-climbing lessons with rangers.”
The list goes on and on.
“I don’t know of any other park in the country that allows you to take your dog everywhere,” Nicholas said. “We do. And that’s actually one of the hottest trends in travel — people traveling with their pets.”
The BSF also has the last public pool among America’s national parks, a group camp facility that is among the most unique in the nation, the most mountain biking trails of any of America’s national parks, and it’s one of the few national parks that allow hunting.
Everything is continuous. To that end, Nicholas hopes the Big South Fork’s visitation will continue to grow. Programs the park is putting into place — such as increased interpretive programs that are offered at Bandy Creek and Blue Heron every summer weekend — will help.
And as that growth occurs, the communities surrounding the park will benefit. Already, the BSF pumps around $20 million into the surrounding economy annually, according to impact studies conducted by the federal government each year. But there’s room for much more.
“I think we’ll see more people opening businesses that are great for the local community and also for the visitors,” Nicholas said, when asked about her vision for the Big South Fork in 10 years. “We have a different type of visitor here than what you see in the Smokies. These people don’t drive through. They stop their cars, get out and do something. They’re much more active. And once they do get out of their car and do something, people really love the place. So we’re going to continue to see more return visitors.”
Nicholas points to several goals that will help fuel the BSF’s growth over the next several years. She would like to open more visitor centers outside the park, continue to improve infrastructure inside the park (“We’re writing grants like crazy to continue improving infrastructure,” she said), and improve trailheads. The goal is for the Sheltowee Trace and John Muir Trail to be completed between Honey Creek and Brewster Ford in Fentress County within 10 years — and perhaps as soon as half that time, and the hope is that visitation to the park’s campgrounds will continue to increase.
At the center of all of that is the park’s partnership with communities like Scott County. Because a thriving Big South Fork is good for Scott County, and a thriving Scott County is good for the Big South Fork.
“As communities around the park grow, people will see that as they’re trying to recruit certain kinds of talent (for jobs), the park is part of that recruitment,” Nicholas said. “You think about it as just jobs, but having a national park this close to the community is a reason you can recruit top talent.”
This story is the September 2017 installment of "Profiles of a 3-Star Community," presented on the second week of each month by the Industrial Development Board of Scott County as part of the Independent Herald's Back Page Features series.