National Park Week: Transformation Tuesday

National Park Week: Transformation Tuesday

Sarah Shiver

By Sarah Shiver

When you think about the transformations Great Smoky Mountains National Park has undergone, what comes to mind? Chances are you imagine the park’s creation—how it has changed from an area once populated by various communities to a swath of protected land that has largely been reclaimed by nature. But the park’s transformation did not stop with its establishment in 1934. Even now, GSMNP continues to evolve in ways that are natural and unnatural, good and bad.

Volunteer interpreter Tom Harrington has spent decades exploring the park, both as a visitor and a volunteer in various roles. His experiences in the park have allowed him to notice some changes that the untrained and unfamiliar eye might typically overlook. Harrington’s love of wildflowers keeps him attuned to changes in park vegetation.

Elk in Great Smoky Mountain National Park
In 2001, a small group of elk were reintroduced to the park, and the population is now thriving. Photo by Joye Ardyn Durham

“Overall, the winters have become milder, and plants are blooming earlier in the year,” he said. “For example, it has always been a real treat to hike to Gregory Bald to see the flame azaleas in bloom. In earlier years, my visits were usually around the fourth of July to see the flowers in full bloom. Now, the blooms peak around June 15.”

Even with this change, flowering plants in the park seem to be doing well overall. Unfortunately, many tree species in the park have been experiencing a different type of transformation—one that is far more brutal.

“Invasive species, particularly insects, have become more prevalent throughout the park and have damaged many native plant species,” said Harrington. “The emerald ash borer, hemlock wooly adelgid, southern pine beetle, and balsam wooly adelgid have been particularly damaging to trees in the park.” These insects have killed many trees in the Smokies despite mitigation efforts by the National Park Service.

But there is good news in the battle to protect native species. Elk once roamed the Smokies but were eliminated by overhunting and loss of habitat. The last elk was believed to be killed in the 1800s. In 2001 a small group of elk were reintroduced to the area in an attempt to bring the species back to these mountains, and the project has been very successful. The elk population is thriving and slowly reclaiming its place in the park.

Traffic in Cades Cove
Overcrowded parking lots at Cades Cove in 2019. Photo by Warren Bielenberg

While humans are certainly trying to bring about positive transformation to GSMNP, Harrington has noticed that we are responsible for some negative changes as well—simply put, we are loving the park to death.

“Over the years, there has been a tremendous increase in the number of visitors coming to the park,” he said. “Last year the visitation count was over 12 million people, which is the second highest number in park history.”

It’s wonderful that so many people get to experience the beauty of this park, but the effects of overtourism can be quite destructive. “I have noticed more trash along roadsides and trails. I have also seen visitors parking on road shoulders and even in fields when parking lots are full, which can damage vegetation,” said Harrington. “Increasing visitors also means more cars on the roads, which can lead to higher rates of road mortality for all of our wildlife.”

NPS held eight virtual workshops in 2020 to address congestion in GSMNP. Participants discussed ideas for providing better access, experiences, and stewardship of the park. NPS plans to use these ideas to implement pilot programs at high-traffic park destinations in order to minimize environmental impact.

Change is natural, and much of it cannot be stopped. However, we can all take steps to protect our park by being mindful of park regulations that ask us to stay on trails, park in designated areas, and leave no trace.

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