Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Hazy Future

As the park marks its 75th anniversary, it faces waves of tourists, air pollution, and invasive species. Will it last another 75 years?

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That there is hereby created in the Department of the Interior a service to be called the National Park Service. ... The service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations hereinafter specified by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments, and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.

—The National Park Service Organic Act, August 25, 1916

[Left Arrow] Buses, RVs only Overflow Parking [Right Arrow]

—Sign from the Cades Cove Visitors Center parking lot

License plate check: Tennessee and North Carolina (lots of both), Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.

The Saturday before Memorial Day. It's a warm, sunny day. The weather is what you might call ideal for frolicking. And thousands of people have made the trek from around the country to sit in an endless traffic jam in a corner of Southeast Tennessee.

Welcome, America, to the Cades Cove Loop Road in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 11 irreversible miles of pure, unadulterated frustration (also nice views of mountains).

The first thing you see upon entering the loop is a sign that directs motorists to "Please Be Courteous" and "Do Not Stop in Road." The first thing you're likely to see after that is someone stopping in the road.

Today it's a blue mini-SUV, Tennessee plates. The cargo is four ideal family vacation archetypes: a happily oblivious father at the helm, trying (successfully, mostly) to negotiate the wheel, the gearshift, the pedals, a can of soda, and a very large camera; a teenage boy looking down intently at his miniature video game console; a teenage girl reading a book, looking miserable; and a slightly nervous-looking mother. They've stopped to gaze at a few scarce wild turkeys standing in an otherwise empty field.

After a few seconds, a line of six or seven cars has built up behind them. Once they move on, the next car in line does the very same thing. And so on and so forth for 10.9 more miles. Today, the traffic is light by Cades Cove standards. Occasionally, people can even drive two- or three-tenths of a mile without having to stop and wait. But you soon find that even when it's not bad here, it's still kind of bad.

A Balancing Act

The world's a slightly different place than it was in 1916, when the National Parks Service was first established. Still, the parks' mission is, ostensibly, the same now as it was then: unimpaired preservation for the "enjoyment of future generations." It's a mission that, to the more enlightened future generations that are now the present generation, seems contradictory on its face. People are bad for nature. People mean roads, cars, litter, malls, superstores, coal-burning power plants, nuclear power plants, subdivisions, high-rise 2,000-room hotels, sprawling low-rise motels, gift shops, and theme parks. In short, people—particularly people on vacation—equal impairment.

For the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, human activity has meant even more serious problems than that. The park was founded on June 15, 1934—75 years ago this week. The act marked the culmination of decades of grassroots campaigning to save the area from encroaching civilization, in particular the lumber industry, which had already cleared hundreds of thousands of acres of forest in the mountains of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina. Still, the Smokies have been assaulted by less tangible yet equally problematic dangers than the logger's axe: air pollution, water pollution, the degradation of native plant and animal species, and the infestation of foreign (and often malignant) species. In its relatively short history, it's already been altered in ways that would render it unrecognizable to its founders, all a result of human intervention.

But the relationship between the theoretically immaculate parks and the human population that surrounds them isn't simply adversarial. Like the natural ecosystems of the parks themselves, the dual missions of the parks are inherently interdependent, says GSMNP Superintendent Dale Ditmanson. The Smoky Mountains had 420,000 visitors the year it was founded. Last year, it had more than 9 million. At a conservative estimate of about three people per car, plus about 46 buses per day (the park's own estimate), that's nearly 2.4 million vehicles just inside the park itself.

"What you don't want to forget is one of the original ideas for creating this park was economic development. Tourism dollars—the automobile industry will get people here and of course the economy has been a huge piece of this park's existence," Ditmanson says. "We have to recognize that the park needs to be healthy. But we also have to recognize that if there's not a constituency, and there's not a healthy economy, the support for the park might not be there. I can't look back at how development occurred, but from the very beginning, promoters talked about creating this park because tourists were going to come. And they have come in droves. What I can say is our communities are recognizing that they need to consider ways that they can develop more appropriately."

The sticking point is keeping something of a balance, or else the park itself might not be there, at least not in any recognizable way. And that, says Ditmanson, must be the priority.

"I can tell you that I believe our leadership team in the Smokies, that we do recognize that the dual mission is slightly skewed in one way," Ditmanson says. "We've got to preserve the resource first. That has to be the guiding factor. Our management policies recognize that we're going to err on the side of resources."

To Ditmanson, the anniversary is more than just a notch in the park's chronological belt.

"It's a realization of what those visionary people in the '20s and early '30s saw," he says. "It's a realization that it was a very good thing that they did creating the park."

What the park will look like in another 75 years, and beyond, depends on a number of factors. The National Parks Conservation Association, the oldest National Parks stewardship group—founded in 1919—has identified the park among the most endangered in the country. Its problems are not unique to the Smokies, of course, but they may be worse here. One of the aspects that makes the park vulnerable, says Ditmanson, is also something the park is most famous for: its remarkable biodiversity. With more than 10,000 species of plants and animals identified there, it is the most biologically diverse park in the country.

"The good news is that we're such a biodiverse forest. The bad news is that we're such a biodiverse forest that anything that gets here thrives," he says. "We're treating about 100,000 trees in the park. But at some point the trees, even with the treatment, will be too stressed to survive."

Battling Invasive Species

Ditmanson calls them the "gray ghosts." To supervisory forester Kristine Johnson, who deals primarily in invasive species control at the park, these acres of dead trees—victims of one of the two species of woolly adelgid, littering nearly every part of the park—are a glimpse into a much bleaker future.

"We have the most extensive old-growth eastern hemlock forest here anywhere in the world and those are all going to be gone," she says. "Because hemlock is such a dominant species along the watershed, there will be a big difference in the streams. You can imagine big dams of fallen trees. Mudslides will be surely more common."

The hemlock woolly adelgid, which came into the park by way of the nursery industry in Virginia and North Carolina, is only the most recent major non-native species causing mass tree death and changing the very aesthetic of the park.

Perhaps the most famous was the chestnut blight fungus, which came into the park right around when it was established in the 1930s, says Johnson. By the 1940s, it had eradicated nearly all American chestnut trees, not only in the Smokies, but throughout the Eastern United States.

"At the time it had arrived, every fourth tree in the eastern deciduous forest was American chestnut. But it moved very rapidly, and with few exceptions killed all of the trees," she says. "People recounted, in the days before the blight, in the summers, the hillsides would be covered with golden blooms of chestnut flowers, but of course that's gone. "

More recently was the balsam woolly adelgid, which successfully killed off the Fraser fir population at higher altitudes in the park. Johnson did her master's thesis on the balsam adelgid in the late 1980s.

"The insect was just beginning to move through the area. I saw the first mortality in the eastern part of the park. It was first identified on Mount Mitchell. It had most likely been brought into the area in infected Christmas tree stocks. At that time, the government was recommending that farmers begin growing Christmas trees on this marginal farmland in these high elevations in the Southern Appalachians. " she says. "I did see, in the '70s, the mature, intact Fraser fir, spruce fir forest which is gone now. We have remnants, in a few patches, that look as it did in the '70s. So, that's quite a dramatic difference there."

But the hemlock adelgid might be an even bigger problem. Unlike the balsam adelgid—which only attacks mature trees, allowing for the possibility of developing a new population of Frasers—the hemlock adelgid feeds off of trees in every part of their life cycles.

"It would eat through the range of hemlock. It already has. We have developed conservation areas where we are doing treatment, and we're also doing biological controls," in the form of the Sasajiscymnus tsugae and Laricobius nigrinus beetles, which prey on the adelgids, she says. They release about 2,000 per week in the spring and 200 to 300 in the summer. Still, it is not nearly enough to control the population. That won't happen until tree death is so extensive that the adelgids begin to die of starvation, a morbid tipping point that will, hopefully, allow the beetle-to-adelgid population to balance out.

"My knowledge is that we'll never eradicate the adelgid," says Ditmanson. "In 75 years, it would be nice to see that we've achieved that balance."

Johnson seems cautiously optimistic, or at least only semi-pessimistic, about long-term forest health.

"If park management will retain the long view, and continue to work with outside agencies that are in charge of preventing outside introductions and helping provide early detection and rapid response to new infestation, then we will stand a chance of maintaining a native forest," she says. "If we have one generation of short-sighted management, though, all will be lost."

Clearing the Air

Cell service kicks out about halfway between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Headquarters in Gatlinburg and Clingman's Dome on the North Carolina border. It comes back intermittently when you start up the half-mile trail that leads to the summit of the mountain, but point your phone a centimeter this way or that, and it goes out again. Your best chance for cell functionality comes about two-thirds of the way up the impressively retro-futuristic spiral of the observation tower, the highest point in the entire park.

Communicating with the outside world can be a frustrating and altogether precarious experience out here unless you have a radio, because just a few hundreds yards off the trail, there's a gigantic radio tower, transmitting the park employees' chatter throughout the mountains. The tower looms over a small clearing at the summit, the visual anchor of an array of gizmos and gadgets that serve as one of seven key air-monitoring stations in the park.

Here, explains GSMNP Air Quality Specialist Jim Renfro, a 25-year veteran of the Smokies, technicians and scientists can take readings on a host of environmental quality indicators: ozone, sulfur dioxide, cloud and rainwater acidity, visibility and weather.

"We take one-second measurements every hour of every day of every year, and we've been doing it for a long time, 30 years," Renfro says. "We can look at—are things getting better or worse?"

And, says Renfro, things are getting better, in a manner of speaking. In what has been identified as America's most polluted national park by the National Park Conservation Association, "better or worse" often translates to "staying the same or worse."

Ozone pollution is sort of the catch-all standard for air-quality monitoring. It results from nitrous oxide emissions from industry, power plants, and automobiles. It is potentially very harmful to the respiratory system, particularly for sensitive groups like asthmatics and the elderly. The park lies in the midst of two non-attainment areas for violations of eight-hour ozone standards, which were last year adjusted from 85 parts per billion to 75. On the Tennessee side, there's the Knoxville non-attainment area, which includes not only Knox County but also all three counties that border the park: Cocke, Blount, and Sevier. On the North Carolina side, it's actually called the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Non-Attainment area and includes Haywood and Swain counties.

"We don't meet the old standard. We certainly don't meet the new one," Renfro says. "All of the park is in non-attainment for both of them."

In 2007, the last year for which data gathering is complete, the park had 19 days that exceeded the old ozone standard and 43 days that exceeded the new one. In 2006, the park had nine and 32, respectively. Compare that to 2002, the first year that the park was tracking both standards, when there were 42 days that exceeded the 85 ppb standard and 63 that exceeded the 75 ppb standard. And even that is an improvement from before. A steady upswing throughout the mid-'90s came to a head in 1999, the worst ozone year since the park has been monitoring it, when there were 52 days that violated the old standard.

Haze—primarily resulting from sulfur dioxide from coal and petroleum burning—and its effects on visibility are also a big issue here. According to area airport records, visibility decreased by an average of 60 percent—40 percent in the winter, 80 percent in the summer—over the second half of the 20th century. That means that while under more natural conditions, summer tourists should be able to see about 100 miles away, they can now only see about 20.

"Let's go back to the namesake of the park," Renfro says. "Shaconage, the Cherokee word for blue misty smoke. You go right underneath these clouds and you see a blue, misty smoke. That's the namesake of the park, not a cloudless day where it's like a white shroud of haze, 360 degrees. That's not the reason the Smokies were named the Smokies. That's pollution."

In 1999, the EPA enacted regional haze rules, which require that all class-one areas under the Clean Air Act—an elevated standards classification that includes all large National Parks—restore natural visibility by 2064.

He and his staff (currently, one other person) developed what Renfro calls a "glide path" to getting there. And, he says, things are improving, and they are ahead of the plan.

"If you look at the 1980s and 1990s, all of the things that we wanted to monitor were getting worse," Renfro says. "So it wasn't a good commentary. There aren't any of those big measures that are getting worse anymore. Most of those, ozone and haziness and acid rain, they've flattened and they're not getting worse. That's big news. In the next five years, we're probably gonna see more improvement."

He credits some of that optimism to recent improvements at coal-burning plants run by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

"That's part of the reason, not the only reason, why air quality's getting betterenough sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide reductions that our monitors are finally showing that it's starting to go down and improve air quality," he says, also noting that TVA is heavily involved in air monitoring at the park. "I do not do this alone. There are people from state and local to municipality to volunteer. On the federal level, EPA, TVA. We're direct partners with them on a lot of these things."

The Next Century

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is slowly, silently walking around the room. She's surveying a very noisy, barely contained scene, ambling past adults who've suddenly erupted into spontaneous giddiness.

The noise level is that of an elementary school lunch room, and so is the level of excitement. O'Connor has taken the role of the lunchroom monitor. Just moments earlier, these people were sitting quietly in a conference area in the Center of the Smoky Mountains' Twin Creeks Science and Education Center just inside the park, looking like what they were: very important grown-ups doing very important work.

Then one of them, Sally Jewell, president and CEO of Recreational Equipment, Inc., which has 100 stores in 27 states, and a member of the University of Wisconsin's Board of Regents, asked them to participate in one of those exercises that people usually hate to do:

"I'd like you each to find a partner and talk about your first visit to a national park."

And now, it's very loud in here.

"I was 6 years old when we went to Yellowstone," former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard yells, delving into an enthusiastic yarn mostly about getting from Detroit to Wyoming, and the startling differences between Detroit and Wyoming.

There's a similar scene nearby with Denis Galvin, former Deputy Director of the National Parks Service, who seems to be talking about playing baseball at one of the parks as a kid.

The 23-member National Parks Second Century Commission—most of whom are in this room on June 2, their first day in the Smokies—also includes a Pulitzer Prize winner, members and former members of Congress, award-winning journalists, professors and university administrators, environmental scientists, and the president of the National Geographic Society.

"We were told when we first began that we would not get good attendance because these people are so busy," says Loran Fraser, the commission's executive director. "But they love the parks. There are 23 commissioners, and we've been delighted to see almost all of them at every meeting."

The commission was founded last year by the National Parks Conservation Association to visit parks and, in Fraser's words, "Pose a question: In a world of accelerating change, and a world that's profoundly different than when the service was established a century ago, what kind of National Park System do we want to see going forward?"

Over the past year, they've visited five national parks, beginning in August 2008 at the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and ending last week with the Great Smoky Mountains. The end product will be a report, which will be distributed to key members of government as well as the general public to increase awareness about the parks and trying to draw attention to their problems.

"All I can stress at this point is that the commission will be pointing out that human-induced activity is impacting many natural systems in the national parks," says Fraser. "One of the consequences, which a lot of people simply don't understand, is that wildlife populations have decreased by 20 percent at a lot of parks. What do we think of that as a people? "

The key to making it work though, says National Geographic editor Lynne Warren, who will actually be writing the report, is doing that without sounding preachy or getting overly technical.

"We can talk about these problems without sounding like a whiner," she says. Rather, the report will seek to appeal to the personal experience of going to a park, and the value that has. "It's so valuable that even in our stupidest moments as a nation, we know we just can't let them go."

The 12,000-word report will come out in mid-September, says Fraser, timed with the release of a Ken Burns six-part documentary on the parks, which will premiere on Sept. 27 on PBS.

"This is a fundamentally important and highly respected institution and idea," Fraser says. "It's an idea that's been characterized as America's best idea."

Coincidentally, America's Best Idea is also the name of the documentary.

When asked to gauge the future of the parks, both Ditmanson and Fraser are guarded. The answer, they both seem to say, is, "It depends."

"The Smokies exemplify a need for broad national constituencies that are aware of how our lifestyles affect natural systems," Fraser says. "The future of the Smokies is that it depends on the interest and awareness of the citizens and the kinds of monitoring systems we have in place. Absent broad, mega-decisions to develop alternatives, there are gonna be these implications for natural systems."

But, says Ditmanson, that interest and awareness is already in place in the form of groups like the Second Century Commission, the NPCA, the Friends of the Smokies, and others. That is what keeps him optimistic.

"I have to say I don't have a nightmare vision of what the park could become," says Ditmanson. "The one thing about the National Parks is that it's not just us, not just the National Park Service. There are so many people out there who have embraced it. That's what makes me feel good about the future, that there's so many people out there who embrace it and protect it. That's one of the things we're celebrating this year."