The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of America’s great natural treasures. It’s also decidedly well loved, drawing more visitors than any other national park in the country. Unfortunately the park faces significant challenges, including tree-felling insects, wildfires and aging infrastructure. The Smokies are also in dire need of funding, which will be essential for the park’s success in the years ahead.
Loving the Park to Death
The Smokies provides a huge boon to the economies of North Carolina and Tennessee. In 2017 visiting vacationers spent more than $900 million in surrounding communities, supporting nearly 14,000 jobs. From a pure numbers perspective, the park continues to break records, drawing over 11 million visitors during each of 2016 and 2017. Across the country, national park tourism remains a significant driver of the American economy, with every dollar invested by visitors in the National Park Service returning $10 to the economy.
Although the high spending supports local jobs, it doesn’t help pay for aging park infrastructure. The park suffers a huge amount of wear and tear, and currently has more than $233 million in deferred maintenance needs. Much of this is related to road repairs needed for some of the park’s 200 miles of roads, bridges and tunnels. Other urgent needs include upgrades to the park’s headquarters, maintenance along hiking trails and the rehabilitation of historic structures spread across five key areas. Sadly the Smokies aren’t unique when it comes to financial struggles: the total deferred maintenance bill for all national parks – nearly $12 billion – is four times the annual appropriation by the US government.
Financial woes have already affected parts of the park. In 2013 Look Rock campground and picnic area, on the west side of the park, was closed owing to a lack of funding to replace its water-treatment system. Five years later it remained shuttered. A high-profile visit to the campground in 2018 by Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander and US Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, however, brought attention to the park’s maintenance backlog with Zinke promising $2 million to reopen Look Rock. Alexander was also there to tout a controversial new bill he was sponsoring in Congress. It would link needed national park funding with revenue earned from energy production on federal lands.
A Plague of Insects
One of the greatest threats to the Smokies comes in the form of a tiny insect: the hemlock woolly adelgid. This invasive species, first detected in the park in the early 1990s, has been devastating the mighty hemlock trees of the Smokies. The aphid, no bigger than a speck of dust, feasts on the sap of the tree and rapidly reproduces. Once infected, a full-grown tree typically dies in less than five years. This ravaging insect is creating an ecological catastrophe since one in five trees in the Smokies is a hemlock.
To combat the infestation, the park is doing its best to treat affected trees by injecting or spraying them with pesticides – not an easy (or inexpensive) option, given the many inaccessible areas where hemlocks grow. The park has also released predator beetles (another non-native species) in hope of wiping out the aphid, though experts say it will be years before the beetles can put a dent in the adelgid population.
The insect devastation is apparent on many popular trails and at viewpoints throughout the park. It also caused the closure of the Parson Branch Rd in 2016. Inspecting park crews spotted more than 1700 dead trees within falling distance of the 8-mile-long roadway. With tree removal estimated at $450,000 and no funds available, the road remains closed to motorists, with no reopening date on the books.
The Chimney Tops Fires
In November, 2016 tragedy stuck Great Smoky Mountains National Park when fire was reported on Chimney Tops, one of the park's most popular trails. The combination of exceptional drought conditions, low humidity and wind gusts that topped 80mph caused the flames to spread over the next few weeks into what would soon become the deadliest wildfire in the eastern USA since the Great Fires of 1947.
Despite the heroic efforts by some 780 firefighters, the park and the nearby towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge suffered significant damage. Fourteen people died, around 2400 structures were damaged or destroyed, and 14,000 residents were forced to evacuate. The cost in dollars topped $500 million.
Inside the park, more than 15 square miles were scorched, with Chimney Tops taking the brunt of the blow, forcing the closure of one of the park's most beloved trails. It has since reopened, though the final section to the peaks remains closed for the long-term owing to loose rocks and the extreme instability of the rocky soil.