Great Smoky Mountains National Park Reflects Crippling Impacts of ‘Loving Our Parks to Death’

Multimedia Reporting By Genni Abilock

On a cloudless summer day, Michael L. Smith, a Great Smoky Mountains National Park ranger, ventures off the beaten trail to experience the nature so many nerve-shaken, over-civilized people long for, yet so few ever attain.

It was here that Smith was able to discover a side of Mother Nature unreachable by smart car, a world far beyond the comfortable realm of fiber optic televisions and touch screen watches. It was here that Smith experienced the wild.

Within this very same park, as the late afternoon slowly creeps toward twilight, two pot-bellied men jump over a rail on the side of the road. Either too ignorant to notice, or too selfish to care, they carelessly feast upon their drive-through McDonalds dollar menu hamburgers, unaware of the implications of their actions.

This is yet another day in the life for Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

And this divide is not uncommon.


“…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.” — From the Organic Act, which established the U.S. National Park System in 1916

Increase in population leads to increase in recreation

Enacted in 1916 as a result of the Organic Act, for almost a century now the National Park System has inspired millions, perhaps even billions, of individuals, providing them with an escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Designed with the conservation of our nation’s national parks in mind, the Organic Act was established “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.”

Today 58 parks make up the total number of U.S. national parks.

“While these beautiful spaces have provided recreation, reflection, rejuvenation and refuge for so many, these natural resources are also in need of significant maintenance, management and repair due not only to decreased funding, but also due to the ever increasing lack of understanding of basic natural processes”

“While these beautiful spaces have provided recreation, reflection, rejuvenation and refuge for so many, these natural resources are also in need of significant maintenance, management and repair due not only to decreased funding, but also due to the ever increasing lack of understanding of basic natural processes”

While no two parks face the same challenges, all encounter one overarching threat: mankind.

“As the world’s human population continues to increase, so too does the need for recreation,” said William Bowman, a professor and associate chair for graduate studies in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at University of Colorado Boulder, Bowman is also director of the Mountain Research Station.

Jason Grubb, the education programs manager at the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, agrees.

“While these beautiful spaces have provided recreation, reflection, rejuvenation and refuge for so many, these natural resources are also in need of significant maintenance, management and repair due not only to decreased funding, but also due to the ever increasing lack of understanding of basic natural processes,” said Grubb. “This disconnect leads people to fail to recognize the implication of their actions.”

Ironically it is the very visitors seeking to enjoy these parks that are ultimately, and often times unknowingly, destroying them.

According to the National Park Service, in 2014 alone more than 10 million visitors flocked to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And while numbers like these make this park the most-visited U.S. national park to date, this prestige is not maintained without consequence.


The strains of vehicular traffic at the parks

Kelly Redmond, a regional climatologist as well as the deputy director of the Western Regional Climate center in Reno, Nevada, says his research in climate change and behavior has shown that air pollution is the leading cause of visitor-impacted environmental issues in national parks.

In some parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite, steps have been taken to monitor and regulate air pollution by controlling the flow of congestion into and out of parks through public transportation.

Despite being the most populated park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has yet to take such action. As a result, traffic is only getting heavier, and the damage is only getting worse. At Clingman’s Dome, the park’s most popular attraction, because of a lack of available parking, even in off-peak months like April, people are left with no choice but to park their cars in undesignated parking spots.


Heavy congestion leads to air pollution


According to the National Parks Conservation Association, Great Smoky Mountains suffers some of the highest levels of ozone in the Eastern United States, more than 300 days of exceeding “ozone health limits” documented since 1990.

Ozone stress is accompanied by a photochemical smog, a pollutant produced from chemical reactions between sunlight and auto exhaust gases. This high-ozone pollution affects every living, breathing thing within the park’s ecosystem, including tourists.

Over the years, many visitors and wildlife have developed major breathing problems because of the polluting fog and air.


Visitors unknowingly carry invasive species

While tourists are the most obvious visitors to the parks, unbeknownst to them, often times they are not alone. When entering the parks, humans may also carry with them stowaways with the potential to cause devastating impact. In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one such critter is an Asian insect known as the wooly adelaid.

First spotted in the park in 2002, this small, yet menacing invasive species is known to feed on and kill the park’s century-old hemlock trees.

Among the largest and most common trees in the park, according to the National Park Service, these trees are crucial to the park, responsible not only for keeping mountain streams cool for trout, but also for providing the habitats of numerous species.

If nothing is done to stop the wooly adelaid, this pest is projected to kill off most of the hemlock trees in the park.

The trail up to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

While tourists are the most obvious visitors to the parks, unbeknownst to them, often times they are not alone. When entering the parks, humans may also carry with them stowaways with the potential to cause devastating impact. In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one such critter is an Asian insect known as the wooly adelaid.

First spotted in the park in 2002, this small, yet menacing invasive species is known to feed on and kill the park’s century-old hemlock trees.

Among the largest and most common trees in the park, according to the National Park Service, these trees are crucial to the park, responsible not only for keeping mountain streams cool for trout, but also for providing the habitats of numerous species.

If nothing is done to stop the wooly adelaid, this pest is projected to kill off most of the hemlock trees in the park.


Concern Three: Ecosystem impacted by trail erosion

Though signs posted at trailheads at Great Smoky Mountains indicate that the use of strollers and bikes and the presence of pets of any kind are not permitted, for the most part these rules are ignored.

This may in part be due to the fact that, while there are rules posted, typically there are not a sufficient number of park officials out and about to enforce them.

The parking lot at Clingmans Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Because many choose to ignore these rules, deciding instead to bring along their dogs, or to stray off the designated trails, vegetation is often trampled, ultimately causing soil erosion within the land.


WORKING TO ADDRESS LOOMING ISSUES

Appalachian trailhead at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Appalachian Trail Conservancy cooperation initiative a work in progress

“User-created problems are best solved by thoughtful, informed users”

Crossing paths as far north as Arcadia National Park in Maine, and as far south as Georgia, the long-traveled routes of the Appalachian Trail serve as links between many of the nation’s largest parks along the Eastern Seaboard.

While William Somerville, regional director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, maintains that “the most simple solutions rely heavily on proper behavior,” in order to further address concerns along the trail, currently the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is tackling common issues alongside a number of partners, some of which include the A.T. Club volunteers, the NPS, the USDA Forest Service and public health agencies.

“We are stepping up efforts to educate users about appropriate sanitation practices while hiking and camping on the Appalachian Trail,” Somerville explained.

“We are increasing volunteer and seasonal employee presence on the Appalachian Trail during high-use periods and at high-use areas to help the uneducated A.T. user learn how to care for themselves in the woods and thus how to care for the A.T,” said Somerville.

The conservancy group has also begun developing hiker registration tools, which allow trail users to see times and places the trail may be over-capacity for overnight use. This gives hikers the ability to choose a different time or location to visit, ultimately limiting the number of visitors to the A.T.

“User-created problems are best solved by thoughtful, informed users,” said Somerville. “We, and our partners, are very concerned about this issue and hope that our efforts will result in a win-win solution, that hikers, themselves, with appropriate tools, will spread out and use improved practices to solve overcrowding challenges.”

“There seems to be a lack of understanding about the natural world and our role, as humans, in it,” added Melanie Schlotterbeck, a member of the Sierra Club and conservation advocate. “When you respect something you want to see it flourish. We need to educate the public so they respect the resources, and then they will care about its protection.”

According to Grubb, though visitors cause much damage to the parks, rarely are the negative impacts caused out of ill intentions.

“People just don’t always know what the ‘right’ thing to do, is,” he explained. “Often these individuals simply do not understand the implications of their actions, and how their impacts affect not only the resource, but other visitors’ experiences in these parks. We believe that the vast majority of recreation-related impacts can be addressed with education.”


Balancing use and overuse can make a difference — funding is crucial


Entrance to Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.
“It isn’t just about finding the balance between recreation and resource protection. We need to remember why these cherished places were protected in the first place”

In light of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, the ‘Find Your Park’ campaign was launched in attempts to reintroduce the national parks and the work of the National Park Service to a new generation of Americans. This campaign encourages people to learn about and connect with the nation’s national parks while also encouraging the continuation of much needed federal funding.

To kick off National Parks Week — April 18–26 — the National Parks Service is offering free admission to all national parks.

According to those within the parks system, because the preservation of these natural areas is costly and underfunded, much of what is destroying the parks is unable to be addressed. In order to fix this, they must work to promote the natural preserves within the system, in hope of drawing in more visitors to raise the money needed to continue to staff and preserve these sacred spaces.

“While we should all get outside and enjoy our parks and wild things that are within them, we simultaneously need to fund them, their management and their use.” — Melanie Schlotterbeck

Though these natural areas provide a source of income for the U.S. government, and while the natural beauty of the parks is what attracts people to them in the first place, paradoxically the overuse of such areas can potentially destroy the very appeal upon which the visitor’s experience depends on.

Only when we find a balance between these two conflicting ideologies can the nation truly find a solution to this problem.

“While we should all get outside and enjoy our parks and wild things that are within them, we simultaneously need to fund them, their management and their use,” said Schlotterbeck.

“It isn’t just about finding the balance between recreation and resource protection. We need to remember why these cherished places were protected in the first place,” she added.


Some see a need for increased governmental action

Because national parks maintenance backlogs reach as high as $15 billion, budget cuts are adding to the stress already being felt.

“Personally, I believe it to be a travesty that our National Parks have been the subject of expansive budget cuts, year after year,” said Schlotterbeck.

National Park Service Ranger Michael Smith talks about the future of parks.

According to the National Parks Conservation Association, the budget to operate national parks has been cut by about eight percent or nearly $190 million compared to four years ago. All in all, the national parks suffer from an annual operations shortfall of more than $500,000.

“I urge every American to write their congressman or woman urging a reinstatement of the National Park Service budget,” Schlotterbeck said. “Our national parks are world-class opportunities to have positive experiences in nature. With a growing population, increasing access into our wildlands and growing demands for resource extraction, our parks will face many challenges in the future.”

Grubb also urged people to participate. “To develop an appreciation of what might be lost, the most important thing Americans can do is to get out and enjoy and explore these amazing spaces,” Grubb said. “Take your kids. Feel the power of these treasures and with that, find the motivation to act and protect them.”


Conservators view national parks as places in our country to be revered


“Our national parks define us as a nation. Without them, America loses a major piece of its identity.” — Jason Grubb

Scott Silver of Wilderness Watch reminds people that Europe may be know for its cathedrals but America is known for the wonders to be found in its national parks. “In the New World, we have no Notre Dames,” he said. “We have our Yosemites and Yellowstones.”

According to Silver, national parks are our Crown Jewels. They are the nation’s masterpieces, and the reason so many flock to the country.

Grubb agrees: “Our national parks define us as a nation. Without them, America loses a major piece of its identity.”

About the multimedia journalist:

R4PG sat down with reporter Genni Abilock to discuss her reporting on environmental issues at U.S. National Parks.

Genni Abilock is a multimedia journalist at Elon University.