Knoxville in 2008: Meanwhile, Out in the Wild ...

A Dry Season

2008 was officially a drought year (as opposed to a "dry period," which is simply, documentably, inconveniently, low precipitation). According to the National Weather Service in Morristown, September was the driest month of the drought. However, as you may have noticed, the rain is back. As of 9 a.m. on Dec. 17, the Knoxville area had 6.1 inches of rainfall for the month, more than twice the normal amount for the entire month. That has brought us back to within 1.27 inches of normal rainfall for the year. The friendly hydro-meteorological technician who took the call predicts—based, one assumes, by looking out his window—that we'll be above normal for the year by the time you read this. The 90-day forecast, he says, calls for above-normal temperatures and moderate to normal amounts of precipitation. He also politely declined to see any inconvenient truths in the pattern of drought-to-deluge, or align it with the extreme weather scenarios predicted by some environmentalists.

"It was just a drought," he says.

Of course, rain in December does nothing for the farmers who were seeing dust devils in their fields all summer. Aaron Tippin and others performed a relief concert in July, at Walters State Community College in Morristown, and helped raise nearly $50,000 to purchase and deliver hay to affected farms in Tennessee. Here's hoping for greener pastures next summer.

Woolly Bully

Much discussed this year, as with every year since they were discovered here in 2002, were the hemlock woolly adelgids that have infested the grand hemlock stands of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The bugs have infested hemlocks throughout the park, and trees in areas hit hardest and earliest have begun to die. They're most visible during the summer, as grey voids in otherwise green vistas.

Park spokeswoman Nancy Gray says there's still no good news regarding the battle. "It's important to remember that what we're doing is saving trees," she says. "If we did nothing, many more trees would be dead by now."

The park's biologists have mounted, beginning in 2002, a three-pronged attack. One method of fighting the adelgids is spraying an insecticidal soap into the trees that reduces their ability to survive the elements. Another is treating the soil around trees too tall to spray, so that the trees themselves deliver insecticide to the parasites. The plan is for those two weapons to hold the adelgid numbers and damage in check until the population of predatory beetles, which feed on the adelgids, introduced into the park can grow to a level that allows a balance the hemlocks can survive. Naturally, the park puts its greatest efforts into high visibility areas, such as Cades Cove, picnic areas and campgrounds. The very expensive program is funded by the National Park Service, Friends of the Smokies and the Great Smoky Mountains Association.

Gray says the stakes are huge. The park lost its chestnut trees to blight in the 1930s, but other hardwoods filled in to protect the park's diverse habitat. "There is no other native evergreen that could take the place of the hemlocks," she says.

The best cause for hope comes from Connecticut, according to Gray. A hemlock forest there was attacked before 2002. The same adelgid assault system has been in use there for a longer time, and that forest is beginning to recover. Knock on wood.

Green Is the Way

Knoxville's becoming known for its network of greenways, which earned a mention on MSNBC and link more of the city at the end of 2008 than they did a year ago.

The most noticeable, to some of us, anyway, is also the shortest: the city completed, at greater expense than expected, a bike-trail link between World's Fair Park and Volunteer Landing along Second Creek. It's less than half a mile, but it makes it easier to bike or walk unmolested by traffic from downtown or Fort Sanders to the river and the main trunk of the city's longest set of trails, which stretch unbroken to Bearden. It also greatly eases access for big events like Boomsday and Vol games, when it's traversed by thousands who figure they just never noticed it before.

The city and Knox County cooperated, for the first time, in constructing a trail in the Cedar Bluff area which crosses over Ten Mile Creek—and under Interstate 40, near Wynnsong Theatres. I-40 has bisected Knox County since the early '60s, but before 2008 a bicyclist had to share a road with cars to cross it; this trail is the only route designed for bicycles and pedestrians that traverses the interstate.

The city also finished a bicycle bridge on the piers of the Buck Karnes Bridge at Alcoa Highway. Currently, it dumps out on the other side, as greenway advocates wrestle with bureaucracies of TDOT and the federal government, which governs the Marine recruiting station. The idea is that the greenway will eventually continue south along Alcoa Highway, ultimately to Maryville, which has its own impressive set of greenways, and someday the Smokies. For now, just crossing the river by bike is a trippy experience for those of us who grew up unacquainted with the possibility.