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The Nation

Breath of Fresh Air Is Rare in Great Smoky Mountains

Pollution: In summer, the smog at the popular national park is almost as bad as in Los Angeles. The haze often obscures scenic Southern vistas.

September 01, 2002|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK, Tenn. -- A slow procession of cars arcs around Cades Cove, a grassy valley so rich in wildlife that the deer feed right next to the one-lane road. Not far from where a group of Illinois tourists has halted traffic to point their video cameras at four wild hogs, a research scientist aims at a different target: the tailpipes of this ceaseless stream of vehicles.

Using computers and infrared light, the roadside researchers are measuring the exhaust from vehicles traveling throughout the park. A separate experiment is taking place high in a section of the park called Newfound Gap, where investigators are checking the breathing of hikers along a four-mile portion of the Appalachian Trail.

The two testing programs, both begun in recent weeks, are part of a larger effort to figure out just how big a mess has been made of the air surrounding Great Smoky Mountains National Park, half a million acres of abundant old forests and rivers straddling Tennessee and North Carolina.

The news is already known to be bad. The park, whose 9.5 million visitors make it the most-visited national park in the United States, also suffers the worst air pollution--often worse than cities such as nearby Knoxville, Tenn., or Atlanta, 150 miles to the south. The mountains corral contaminants drifting from dozens of coal-burning power plants and factories in the region, and from fast-spreading cities and growing fleets of cars.

A 10-year study of air pollution in the southern Appalachians concluded Thursday that most of the area's haze is produced locally, contradicting a long-held view that it comes from industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. The study of pollution in eight states pinned blame mainly on power plants.

Still more pollution comes from the millions of vehicles circulating in the park.

The most obvious result is a whitish haze that on many days obscures the steep hillsides of pine, poplar and oak. It is quite different from the naturally occurring wisps of moist mountain air that inspired the early Cherokees to name the area the "land of blue smoke."

At higher elevations, the haze is "not much different than the L.A. Basin," said park Supt. Mike Tollefson. "It's not as brown, but on a bad summer day it's truly not much different from L.A. in air quality and health effects."

Visibility from lookouts such as the 6,600-foot Clingmans Dome has dropped during the summer months by 80% since 1948, according to studies. Spots that should afford 100-mile views under ideal conditions now yield just 25; that range drops to 15 miles in summer.

"We've been coming up here for 50 years and it's a marked decrease in visibility," said Glenn Lynch, from Jefferson City, Tenn., who was visiting the park with his wife.

Deteriorating vistas are not unique to the Smokies. Smog and soot have smudged views at national parks all over, from Big Bend in West Texas to Sequoia/Kings Canyon in California. The parks' dirty air has been a central theme in the debate over proposals to place stricter federal standards on old power plants and other facilities burning fossil fuels.

Nowhere has the problem been more evident than at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The park operates seven air monitors, measuring ozone, acidity and other factors. The readings often indicate unhealthy air.

"People don't expect that. They think they're going to a national park area and the air should be pristine and clean. It's not," said Janice Nolen, director of national policy at the American Lung Assn., which is sponsoring the two-week tailpipe study, described as the first of its kind in a national park.

The project, which began Tuesday, was timed to coincide with the busy Labor Day weekend, when traffic is heavy. The goal is to learn how much of the park's pollution is coughed up from the cars of its visitors. A report is due in October.

Park planners are considering ways to cut traffic in congested sections such as Cades Cove. One suggestion is to have a tram or bus system replace cars on the 11-mile, single-lane loop.

Two million visitors a year motor around the tranquil meadows, which are dotted with cabins dating to the early 1800s. Motorists stop constantly to gawk at deer or black bears, creating tie-ups that can turn the scenic valley tour into a four-hour ordeal. Other national parks, including Yosemite and Grand Canyon, have restricted access by private vehicle.

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