Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Can the Smokies Be Saved?

By Debbie Gilbert

MARCH 1, 1999:  You’re standing on top of a mountain, surrounded by ghosts: spiky, gray-white skeletons of dead trees in every direction. If you’ve traveled through the Pacific Northwest, the specter is eerily reminiscent of a place you might see: the blast zone around Mount St. Helens, where a volcanic eruption 19 years ago seared the bark off all the trees that it didn’t topple outright.

But now you’re in East Tennessee, and the devastation around you resulted not from a fiery cataclysm but from something far more subtle – environmental threats so insidious that their exact nature is still a matter of scientific debate. Yet intuitively you know, as any reasonably observant person would know, that there is something terribly wrong here.

Welcome to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You’ve probably been here before; most longtime Memphians have fond recollections of family trips taken to this 800-square-mile park at the opposite end of the state, straddling North Carolina. But the Smokies today may not be the same idyllic place you remember. The dead trees are just one of a myriad of ills the park suffers – and they are not necessarily even the most serious problem – but their stark presence is a symbol, a sign that here is an ecosystem on the edge.

The GSMNP is the most visited site in the national park system. Last year it broke its own record, with 10 million visitors – twice the attendance of its nearest competitor, the Grand Canyon. One reason is proximity: The Smokies are within a day’s drive of more than one-third of the U.S. population. But people are also drawn by the park’s legendary assets: the fall colors, lush forests, cool streams, 900 miles of hiking trails, expansive vistas, and the nostalgic evocation of a simpler time.

Scientists, too, flock to the park, because it’s an ecological treasure chest, second only to tropical rain forests in its biodiversity. Thanks to circumstances of geology and location, the Smokies are home to more than 1,600 species of flowering plants, at least 130 trees, 200 birds, 70 fish, 50 mammals. It’s also the salamander capital of the world, with 22 species. The park encompasses some of the largest stands of old-growth forest remaining east of the Mississippi River. Many species indigenous to the Smokies are found nowhere else on the planet. For all these reasons, the United Nations designated the park an International Biosphere Reserve in 1976.

Unfortunately, neither the U.N. nor the National Park Service can erect a magic dome over the park to protect it against destructive outside forces. Especially since the enemy happens to be us. All of the threats to the Smokies are caused, directly or indirectly, by human activity. Problems include pollution, traffic congestion, introduction of non-native species, trail erosion, facilities disintegrating from overuse, and encroaching development. But it’s the air pollution that distresses visitors most – because you can see it.

The Air Up There

Huffing and puffing, you haul yourself up to Clingman’s Dome, hoping to discover just what there is to see from its 6,643-foot vantage point, the highest in Tennessee. And in summer, what you’ll likely see is a lot of whitish haze, making the landscape look like a badly overexposed photograph. This is not the natural “smoke,” or blue fog, these mountains were named for. This is pollution, plain and simple.

Tiny sulfate particles, created by the burning of fossil fuels, cause rays of light to scatter, making everything look fuzzy and indistinct. Over the last 50 years, average visibility in the southern Appalachians has decreased by 40 percent in winter and 80 percent in summer. Your great-grandparents could stand on Clingman’s Dome and see 93 miles into the distance; now you can see 22 miles, on average. There was one day last summer when visibility was just 2 miles.

“In most of our parks, you are seeing visibility getting better over the past 10 years, but not in the Smokies,” says Christine Shaver, chief of air quality for the National Park Service. “I think a lot of emitters here in the valley were able to buy up credits instead of reducing pollution.”

But the loss of scenic views, however disappointing, pales in comparison to the park’s other air-quality problems. A greater danger is ground-level ozone, which forms when nitrogen oxides (NOx) and hydrocarbons, emitted by vehicles and industries, react with sunlight. Ozone damages living tissue, particularly the respiratory and immune systems, making it hazardous to both people and wildlife.

On average, ozone readings on the Smokies’ peaks are twice as high as those in major cities. Last year was the worst ever, with 44 days on which the ozone reached “unhealthy” levels and the GSMNP had to issue advisories, warning people with respiratory problems not to exercise outdoors. The irony is cruel: You come here to escape the city, to get some fresh air, and now you can’t breathe. And think about those who have to live here; longtime park ranger Keith Langdon says he developed asthma about four years ago, with no previous problem and no family history.

But we humans have an advantage: If the air in the Smokies is bad for us, we can leave and go somewhere else. The captive victims are the plants; they’re sensitive to ozone even at levels the EPA deems safe for humans. Just as ozone – which chemically acts like a bleach – can irritate our lungs, it also affects plants where they “breathe”: through the stomata, or pores, in their leaves.

“Ozone damage [to plants] has a distinctive pattern,” says Jim Renfro, air resource specialist at GSMNP. “It’s a dark, purplish stippling on the tops of leaves, between the veins. The higher up you go [in elevation], the higher the cumulative exposure and the greater the injury.”

Leaf damage has been documented on at least 30 species in the park, with tulip poplar and black cherry trees seeming to be especially vulnerable.

Since ozone is formed by sunlight, levels should be highest at midday. But that’s not the case in the Smokies. “Peak ozone here occurs in the middle of the night, while there’s no photoactivity going on,” says Renfro. “Which tells us it’s coming from somewhere else.”

Prevailing winds sweep pollution into the park from power plants and cities as far away as Louisiana and the Ohio Valley. NOx, sulfur, and other compounds are trapped by the mountains and hang there, not only contributing to ozone formation but also falling as acid rain. The Smokies receive more airborne nitrogen and sulfur than any other monitored site in North America.

Normal rainfall has an acidity level, or pH, of about 5.6. In the Smokies, the average is 4.5, or 10 times more acidic than normal. “The average pH of cloud water at Clingman’s Dome, from May to November, is 3.5,” says Renfro. “Sometimes it’s as low as 2.0, which is the same as vinegar.”

So much nitrogen falls on the mountains, in the form of acid rain and fog, that the soils now suffer from advanced nitrogen saturation. This causes nutrients such as calcium to leach out of the soil, leaving plants malnourished. It can also cause the release of toxic aluminum. When it rains, nitrates wash into the streams, posing a threat to aquatic life.

No one disputes that the high-elevation soils are in bad shape. But there’s fierce debate over how much this is harming the vegetation.

What’s Killing the Trees?

The dominant tree species in the upper Smokies are Fraser fir and red spruce. More than 95 percent of the Fraser firs are already dead, victims of a tiny wingless insect called the balsam woolly adelgid. The critter was accidentally imported here from Europe in the 1930s, when the U.S. Forest Service, attempting to rehabilitate clearcut slopes in the Appalachians, tried planting 18 non-native species of conifers. Those experiments failed, but the bug hopped onto the Fraser firs, which had no natural resistance to the infestation.

There’s no question that the adelgid has devastated the firs. But did pollution weaken the trees, making them more susceptible to disease?

That’s speculation, according to Dr. Niki Nicholas, a forest ecologist with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s environmental science and research division. “The adelgid kills firs, regardless of pollution,” she says.

Those who disagree are quick to point out that Nicholas is employed by the state’s biggest polluter. “I think Niki’s a good scientist. I like her as a person. But I would never, ever trust what a corporate scientist tells me,” says Dr. Robert Bruck, professor of plant pathology and forestry at North Carolina State University. “They look for studies to support their position and ignore the others. TVA says there’s no possibility that air pollution is related to forest decline. That’s outrageous. You can’t immediately assume that air pollution is the problem, but to not include it in the list of possible explanations makes no sense.”

Bruck and others point out that if the adelgid is the only culprit, why are trees other than firs also showing damage? “About 15 species are in severe decline – not just conifers, but maples, birches, beeches,” says Dr. Harvard Ayers of Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. He directs the environmental organization Appalachian Voices and edited last year’s eye-catching coffee-table book An Appalachian Tragedy: Air Pollution and Tree Death in the Eastern Forests of North America.

“Those trees, over millions of years, have been hit by any number of stressors,” he says. “We feel air pollution compromises their defenses and makes them vulnerable. The woolly adelgid has been around since the ’30s, but it wasn’t a problem until the air quality became bad. You can write off the Fraser fir – it’s going to be extinct in the southern Appalachians. Even if we improve the air quality, the soils are still acidified. We don’t think the trees at higher elevations are going to come back.”

Research has proven a connection between needle death in red spruce trees and acid deposition in the soil. But there’s no direct evidence that pollution makes trees – conifer or hardwood – more likely to succumb to disease. “We’ve tried and tried to get a grant to study this, and no one will pay for it,” says Bruck.

“There’s not much money going into acid rain,” admits Renfro. “There’s plenty of interest among researchers, but not enough interest with the decision-makers.”

True, acid rain isn’t as trendy an issue as it was in the late ’80s. But perhaps government isn’t paying attention because there are so many other problems confronting the park.

Cars and People

If you haven’t visited the Smokies in a while, be prepared for a shock. While rampant commercialism is common in gateway communities surrounding national parks, the sheer magnitude of consumer culture in the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge/Sevierville area is mind-boggling. As in Branson, Missouri, a number of country-music stars have built their own entertainment complexes. Almost every square foot of U.S. 441 through Pigeon Forge, which leads to the park’s Sugarlands Visitor Center entrance, is lined with amusement parks, theatres, hotels, restaurants, factory-outlet malls, and other attractions, and in the distance you can see bulldozers carving up hillsides to make room for more. There is no planned development, no zoning. This tourism mecca is partly responsible for increasing visitation to the park, as people who come to town for shopping or entertainment decide to take a side trip through the Smokies.

Traffic through Pigeon Forge is so dense it can take half an hour to travel a few miles. As soon as cars cross the park boundary, they are funneled into narrow, two-laned roads, creating bottlenecks. And while there are 380 miles of roads in the park, almost all visitors go to the same places: Newfound Gap Road and historic Cades Cove. During peak times – summer and the fall foliage season – driving in the Smokies can be akin to commuting on an L.A. freeway, with cars idling in gridlock for hours, spewing fumes. And when drivers finally arrive at their destination, they often can’t find anywhere to park. About 16 percent of visitors never turn off their car engine while they’re in the Smokies.

Park officials have been slow to acknowledge that there is a finite number of cars that can be accommodated. “There are only so many roads and they’re only so wide,” says Charles Maynard, executive director of the 8,000-member support group Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “I personally feel that in Cades Cove we’re going to have to go to some type of mass transit, be it a trolley or a hay-wagon. Or we’ll all be sitting in our cars with road rage, shooting at each other.”

“There’s been a 40 percent increase in traffic in the park over the last 10 years,” says ranger Nancy Gray. “We conducted two surveys during peak seasons last year, and we asked visitors if sitting in traffic diminishes their experience, and how they would feel about using a different form of transportation.” Results of that survey are expected in a few months.

Pilot projects using alternative transportation – for example, leaving cars at the park boundary and riding shuttle buses – are under way at Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Zion national parks. But it’s not clear whether such a plan would work for the Smokies. “Electric buses don’t do well on hills or at high elevations,” says Gray. “Also, where would people park their cars?”

When visitors do get out of their vehicles, they put stress on the park’s aging facilities. More than 300 miles of the trails are rated fair to poor. Most were built – as were the roads and bridges – by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) back in the 1930s, while the campgrounds and visitors centers date back to the 1950s. There are also 77 historic structures that require constant upkeep.

The GSMNP currently has a maintenance backlog of $5.4 million. That’s how much it would take to fix everything. There isn’t enough funding to patch up what exists, much less pay for major renovations or new construction.

Where’s the Money?

Scarce resources and antiquated facilities are endemic throughout the national park system, but the crisis in the Smokies is acute. The 1999 fiscal-year operating budget is $12.4 million – not much when you’re talking about managing more than 500,000 acres of land and serving the needs of 10 million people. About 82 percent of the budget goes toward payroll, leaving just 18 percent for operating costs.

“Our budgets have been flat for many years,” says Gray. “They’re not keeping pace with inflation.”

Other popular parks, such as Yellowstone, now charge an entrance fee of $20 per car, and they’re allowed to keep 80 percent of the revenues in the park (rather than sending it to the U.S. Treasury, as was once required). But because of a deed agreement between the federal government and the states of Tennessee and North Carolina, written when the GSMNP was established in 1934, no fee can ever be charged to enter the park. The homesteaders who originally owned the land would only agree to turn over their property to the feds with this stipulation attached.

This works out great for the locals who frequently travel the park roads, but it’s been disastrous for the Smokies. You do the math: If each of the 4 million vehicles that come through the park annually were charged $20, that’s $80 million a year.

Last October the U.S. Senate passed legislation, introduced by Sen. Bill Frist, to allow the Smokies to keep 100 percent of the user fees it collects (mostly from campgrounds). This adds up to about $1.3 million – a nice sum, but a drop in the bucket compared to what an entrance fee could bring in.

GSMNP officials are forced to scrounge for money wherever they can get it; for instance, some road-repair projects are eligible for funding from the Federal Highway Administration.

What’s Being Done

As bleak as the Smokies’ future may seem, a lot of people are working hard to turn things around – including conservative Republicans. Last March, U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson formed the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Congressional Caucus, along with his colleague Frist and seven other House and Senate members from Tennessee and North Carolina. The caucus was responsible for the user-fee bill mentioned above, and it managed to get a rider tacked onto the Omnibus Appropriations Bill granting $970,000 for trail repairs in the Smokies. Its latest measure, introduced about a month ago, is a bill restricting low-flying air traffic over the Smokies.

Even more encouraging is the work of the Friends organization. Since its creation in 1993, the group has raised more than $2.2 million for park projects. No avenue of fund-raising is overlooked, including donation boxes placed throughout the park, into which visitors throw their loose change.

One of the most successful ideas has been the “Friends of the Smokies” Tennessee license plate. Of the extra $25 a vehicle owner pays for this plate, $22 goes into a state-established fund to help the Smokies. In its first year, the program raised $165,744, and now North Carolina has designed its own Smokies plate.

Friends members have also saved the park money by donating their labor to perform tasks such as trail maintenance. In 1998, more than 1,400 individuals gave 69,065 hours of volunteer time.

While these efforts will benefit the park’s fiscal health, scientists are working to preserve the Smokies’ extraordinary biological riches. But they can’t save it until they know exactly what’s there.

“Every month – and I’m not kidding about this – we find a species new to science,” says ranger Langdon.

This means that species may be going extinct before we even know they exist. It’s estimated there may be 100,000 species (not including bacteria) in the Smokies, yet only about 10 percent of these have been identified. So this spring, the park will launch a massive project, the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory, in an attempt to catalog every species within its boundaries. It’s expected to take 12 years to complete, including the two-year pilot study beginning next month. Costs will be borne by private sources such as museums and universities, rather than by the federal government.

Langdon indicates it’s not the funding he’s worried about, but locating qualified people to do the painstaking job of classifying species. “Taxonomists are dying out,” he says. “For example, there’s only two millipede experts left in the United States. People just don’t go into that line of work anymore.”

But the most perplexing problem the park faces – one that’s an assault from outside, and beyond the control of employees or volunteers – is air quality.

“The nature of air pollution is that it’s regional, and that results in a lot of blame-shifting and finger-pointing,” says Don Barger, southeast director of the National Parks and Conservation Association. “That’s why national [air pollution] standards are necessary.

“Because all decisions are political, the first step in getting anything done is public awareness,” he continues. “We did a survey and found that 86 percent of the people were either somewhat or very convinced that air pollution is impacting the park. The majority said they’d be willing to spend more money to have cleaner air.”

That’s the kind of response that can get a politician’s attention. After dropping the ball a couple of years ago, Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist renewed a memorandum of understanding to protect air quality in the Smokies. The catch was that it would expire at the end of 1998 unless the governor of an adjoining state signed on. At the last minute, Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina did. But now the agreement expires at the end of this year unless another of the eight Southern Appalachian Mountain Initiative states (those surrounding the park) joins in. So on April 7th, there will be conference at which most of the southeastern governors are expected to discuss the air-pollution dilemma.

A major step forward was TVA’s announcement last July that it would voluntarily reduce NOx emissions by 75 percent within five years. That should help bring down the ozone level, but it doesn’t do anything about the sulfur that creates haze and smog. While sulfur levels in the air have gone down in West Tennessee, they’ve gone up in the Smokies – and much of that pollution is coming from TVA’s coal-fired plants.

New EPA regulations on regional haze are expected to make a difference, but compliance isn’t required until 2008. Some environmentalists want stronger measures. “The long-range solution is to get away from coal-burning completely,” says Ayers. “We’ve got to move to something that burns cleaner, like natural gas. It’s doable. It’s a matter of political will.”

But TVA spokesperson Barbara Martocci says it’s not that simple. “TVA is looking at all the options it has. … If you’re thinking of switching to natural gas, you have to consider how long [the supply of] natural gas will be available, and the environmental costs of laying pipeline.”

Recently, Martocci explains, TVA has been switching its Middle and West Tennessee power plants to low-sulfur coal, because those were the ones with the highest emissions. The East Tennessee plants will be taken care of later.

However, according to the Park Service’s Shaver, time is a luxury the Smokies may not have. “The Park Service doesn’t like to do eco-autopsies,” she says. “We prefer to address problems as we find them. I think more attention needs to be paid to renewable [energy] and pollution prevention.”

Experts agree that improving the park’s air quality will require cooperation not just from TVA but from pollution emitters across the eastern U.S.

“The Smokies are not only one of the National Park Service’s more serious problems, but also one of the few places that’s getting worse,” says Shaver. “The trends are negative, not positive, and it’s not clear what the future holds.”

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