Great Smoky Mountains National Park has some of the worst air pollution in the national park system. Not only does the National Park Service acknowledge the air pollution problems across the park system, but the National Parks Conservation Association produced a lengthy study that chronicled the dilemma and suggested a range of solutions that could help clean the air.
Now, the other day The Mountain Press, a paper published in the Great Smokies' backyard, printed an editorial that noted support for parks promised by David Davis, a Republican from Tennessee who makes his congressional debut this month in the U.S. House of Representatives. In that piece, the newspaper touched on the park's hazy air conditions:
The Smokies face a critical challenge in the areas of environment and roads. And those two are tied together. Currently the Park has the worst air quality in the national park system. Among the solutions being discussed is a mass transit system to take people into some of the most popular places. (Supt. Dale) Ditmanson said some of the Park's problems could be alleviated if a workable mass transit system could be developed.
If it were only that easy.
During his Park Service career, Owen Hoffman was a ranger and naturalist at Crater Lake National Park. These days he's the president and director of the Center of Risk Analysis at SENES Oak Ridge, a company that "specializes in human health and ecological risk estimation, risk assessment, and risk communication."
Based in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Hoffman knows something about Great Smoky National Park and its air pollution woes. And while he applauds local efforts to address the park's air pollution, he points out that it will take more than "acting locally" to truly solve the problem.
"...even at its worst, I cannot see how the bumper-to-bumper traffic in Cades Cove, and elsewhere in the park, traffic congestion which occurs mainly during peak visitation periods, contributes significantly to the air pollution originating from regional sources," says Hoffman. "These regional sources of air pollution have been thoroughly documented over the past 25 years or so to contribute to extensive ecological damage to the forest ecosystem, especially at higher elevations."
While he agrees that a mass transit system in the park could alleviate some of the traffic congestion, Hoffman adds that he doubts "that the mass transit system would produce a measurable decrease in air pollution or ecological impact."
"... What is desperately needed is effective multiple incentives to get individuals out of their cars and out on foot or bicycle, especially when visiting Cades Cove."
Indeed, the real solution to the park's dirty airshed, and to other parks with similar problems, must involve a larger array of players.
"Reduction of park air pollution will require difficult social/political regulatory solutions at a far greater scale than that associated with local traffic on park roads," believes Hoffman.
Of course, the question is whether we as a society truly acknowledge the extent of air pollution -- not just in the parks, but across the country -- and are ready to seriously confront the problem and buy into the solutions.