Future Bleak for Great Smoky Mountains National Park

WASHINGTON, DC, April 19, 2004 (ENS) - Air pollution, invasive species, inadequate funding and urban encroachment are killing the natural wonders of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, according to an expert assessment of the park's condition. The new report casts a stark warning for the future of America's most visited national park, which has been recognized worldwide for its remarkable biological diversity.

The Great Smoky mountains got their name from natural haze that hangs over the mountains but are now plagued by pollution from coal fired power plants, industry and automobiles, finds the report from the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).

"From hazy skies to health warnings, no other national park documents as much damage from air pollution as the Smokies," said Jill Stephens, air program analyst in NPCA's southeast regional office.

The Great Smokies has the worst overall air quality of any national park, with sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone and particulate matter mainly responsible for the unnaturally hazy skies and other air pollution impacts at the park. amazon

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is internationally renowned for its biodiversity. (Photo courtesy NPCA)
Last week the federal government designated the park as an unhealthy area where air pollution exceeds federal ozone standards.

Clouds laden with pollution hang over sensitive spruce-fir forests in the park and some high elevation sites are often as acidic as vinegar, according to the report.

Air pollution has reduced visibility from an average of 113 miles under natural conditions to an annual average of 25 miles.

During the summer of 2002 the park recorded 42 unhealthy air days - surpassing many eastern cities including Atlanta, Georgia, which was designated as an eight hour ozone nonattainment zone last week.

The severe air pollution is a danger to the park's biodiversity, which is also threatened by nonnative invasive species.

Diseases have already killed off virtually all the park's chestnut trees and threaten the future of its high elevation beech trees as well as its dogwoods and butternuts.

The balsam wooly adelgid, an invasive insect, has killed more than 90 percent of the park's mature Fraser firs, and in addition, hemlocks are at risk from the nonnative hemlock wooly adelgid.

A slew of nonnative plants are displacing native species, and feral hogs continue to threaten overall forest health.

These diseases and pests are undermining the ecological health of the entire park, according to the report, and put at risk the biological diversity that is the hallmark of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Efforts to combat these threats and to preserve the park's cultural resources are hampered by historic underfunding of the park and the National Park Service as a whole, the report says.

The park has the largest collection of historic log cabins and a vast archaeological history, but NPCA estimates it has an annual budget shortfall of $11.5 million - at least one third short of needed funding - and a maintenance backlog in excess of $150 million.

"By neglecting their duty to adequately fund our national parks, Congress and the administration are squandering the nation's legacy," said NPCA's senior director of the Southeast region Don Barger. smokies

The Great Smokies were named for the natural blue haze, but severe air pollution now endangers the natural resources of the park. (Photo courtesy NPCA)
The Great Smoky Mountains is in part a victim of its own popularity and location.

With more than nine million annual visitors, it is the most visited national park and is located within a day's drive of two-thirds of the U.S. population.

The Great Smokies are among the oldest mountains in the world, formed some 200 million to 300 million years ago.

The crest forms the boundary between Tennessee and North Carolina and elevations range from 875 to 6,643 feet.

The federal government established the 521,495 acre park in 1934 to protect some of the last remaining old growth forests in the eastern United States and to ensure the survival of the thousands of species that take refuge in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Some 95 percent of the park is forested and a quarter of that forest is old growth.

More than 10,000 species have been documented within the 800 square mile park - scientists estimate an additional 90,000 species may live in the park.

In recognition of the park's unique natural resources, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has designated Great Smoky Mountains National Park as an International Biosphere Reserve - it has also been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The NPCA report, which relies on data from private sources and state agencies as well as the National Park Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is the first comprehensive assessment of the park's condition.

It recommends stricter enforcement of federal and state clean air laws and a concerted effort to address funding shortfalls if the park is to be preserved.