National

Great Smoky Mountains park gets an unusual apology in the mail — with a rock 

See the Great Smoky Mountains National Park through the lens of Observer staffer John D. Simmons

From 2002-2009 Simmons documented stories on park flora and fauna including elk, brook trout, black bear and other park denizens.
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From 2002-2009 Simmons documented stories on park flora and fauna including elk, brook trout, black bear and other park denizens.

Rangers at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park say they received an unusual letter, and it included a piece of the park stolen by a tourist: a rock.

The sender, a girl named Karina, offered an apology.

“Deep Creek was awesome! I especially liked Tom Branch Falls. I loved it so much, I wanted to have a souvenir to come home with me, so I took a rock. I’m so sorry and want to return it,” the letter said.

Well, to begin with hellbenders are North America's largest salamander, an ambush predator and most likely an indicator of high quality water.

The National Park Service posted her penciled letter on Facebook, partly because of Karina’s adorable innocence (she misspelled some words) but also because it underlies a growing threat to one of the nation’s most popular parks.

Stealing rocks from streams and rivers — or even just moving them — is a legitimate concern, the park says, because fish and endangered salamanders nest among pebbles in streams.

This is particularly true in August, when male hellbenders make nests under rocks, rangers say. Disturbing stones can keep eggs from hatching, park officials said in a Facebook post. It’s also against federal law to remove anything from the park, including picking flowers.

From 2002-2009 Simmons documented stories on park flora and fauna including elk, brook trout, black bear and other park denizens.

“Thank you for recognizing that what is in the park should stay in the park,” rangers wrote in a response to Karina’s letter. “If every visitor took a rock home, that would mean 11 million rocks would be gone from the park every year! The park would definitely not be as beautiful as it was before.”

As for the rock she mailed back, a ranger returned it to Tom Branch Falls and dropped it into the water, officials said. The 80-foot-tall waterfall is on the North Carolina side of the park, not far from Bryson City.

Park officials did not say where Karina is from, but noted she included both a donation and a drawing of the waterfall in her letter.

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