Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Visit to Great Smokey Mountains National Park

Elk grazing with the farm museum in the background
My wife and I spent several days last week visiting the Great Smokey Mountains National Park which lies across the North Carolina-Tennessee border in the south-eastern United States. With more than a half million acres, this is the most visited national park in the USA. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also a keystone of the Southern Appalachian Biosphere Reserve, one of UNESCO's World Network of Biosphere Reserves.

Vies of the forested mountains shrouded by the mist that give the Park its smokey look.
The Park lies south of the furthest extension of the ice sheets that covered much of North America in the last ice age. As a result, the Park has an exceptional biodiversity, including more than 3,500 plant species, including almost as many trees (130 natural species) as in all of Europe. Many endangered animal species are also found there, including what is probably the greatest variety of salamanders in the world.

Much of the Park is off road, and indeed off trail, essentially out of reach of human visitors. Those areas that we could visit offered mile after mile of forest, with considerable diversity of forest types. The Park includes large areas of old growth forest. My wife and I saw elk, deer and wild turkeys in the Park, animals so protected that they were unafraid to stand in the open and be seen by visiting humans.

We stayed in Cherokee, a town on the Cherokee reservation that borders on the Park. Cherokees have lived in the region for a thousand years; a core population successfully resisted efforts in the 19th century to remove them to Oklahoma and their descendants continue to live in the region. Parts of the Park were occupied by European-American settlers for a long period, and while people were removed from the Park at its founding, it still retains sites where visitors can learn how they lived. The descendants of those settlers are also to be found in the region surrounding the Park.

It is important to recognize that the Park was created in the 20th century, in part to reclaim lands that were being ruined by over-exploitation. Railroads had penetrated the region and made clear-cut lumber extraction possible and profitable. Large areas of what is now the Park were clear cut, their soils left unprotected against erosion from the relatively heavy rainfall of the region, and unable to support the plant and animal communities that now exist. It is more than 70 years that the Park has been protected by the National Park Service, and in that time the forest has begun its recovery. Still, the 400 year old trees that grace the old growth forest are absent from much of the current Park.

The Park is not yet safe. I quote from The Daily Green:

The Great Smoky Mountains are indeed smoky... but, smoggy too.
The Smokies are the most visited of the national parks, and in one sense they are being loved to death. 
Smog comes primarily from two sources: smokestacks and tailpipes. Both are a problem in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as the pollution from distant coal-fired power plants and factories, and the nearby pollution from millions of vehicles enjoying the park's scenic drives mingle with heat and sunlight to form smog. 
The Great Smoky Mountains take their name from a fine blue mist visible rising from valleys. Don't mistake it for the obscuring white haze of smog, which is more common today. It's a goal of federal officials to decrease smog overall, and particularly where it obscures the view from national parks. Still, with increasing car traffic, vehicles have been contributing more, not less, to the problem.
There are also problems with imported diseases and pests. I quote again, this time from the Park Service:
Sixty years ago, the most common Park tree was American Chestnut. About 30% of the Park was chestnut forest. Due to a disease, chestnut blight, every adult chestnut in the eastern United States died. Loss of the chestnut heavily impacted animals depending on the nuts for winter fat. Scientists continue to work search for hybrid chestnut species that can resist this disease.

The southern spruce-fir ecosystem is also threatened. The Park, in North Carolina and Tennessee contains about 75% of all southern spruce-fir ecosystems. I quote from Wikipedia:
Since the invasion of the balsam woolly adelgid, discovered in 1957, Fraser fir mortality rates have been 90-99%. Although some areas are being regenerated by young firs, there is much change in understory composition, including invasion by both woody and herbaceous species. Red Spruce, the spruce component of the spruce fir ecosystem, has also been suffering declines. Some researchers attribute these declines to damage from wind, which is usually blocked by the firs. Balsam woolly adelgids have destroyed about 95% of the Fraser firs in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, creating "ghost forests".
"Ghost" Fraser Firs killed by the Balsam woolly adelgid on Clingmans Dome, Great Smoky Mountain National Park
The danger to this National Park's ecology suggests that the people of the United States and the United States Government owe more and better stewardship of the site which UNESCO has recognized as of global importance. Let us hope that the failure of the Congress to honor the responsibility of the United States to pay its dues to UNESCO will not be paralleled by a failure to protect our World Heritage sites or to play our appropriate role in the global scientific network studying bioreserves.

1 comment:

Christine said...

John, thanks for this thoughtful info on the park and the needs for ecosystem rehab and preservation there. I learned a lot. Hope you enjoyed the visit.