National Geographic : 1994 Oct
(Continuedfrom page 21) Pictured Rocks, star-spangled in the Kobuk Valley. The cliff house at Canyon de Chelly, the cannon at Gettysburg, the covered wagons at Scotts Bluff. The icy ramparts of Denali presiding over six million acres of Alaska wilderness. The granite facade of No. 26 Wall Street, pre siding over the half acre of New York City where the Bill of Rights was born. To be sure, there was no way I could now return to these parklands expecting to experi ence each one as I had the first time around. Over the years so many external threats and internal problems throughout the system have grown progressively worse -abrading the quality of air and water, usurping the pursuit of solitude, gridlocking the gateways with traffic and commercial glitz. Still, to take the proper pulse of the parks, I would have to go back to a few of those places I'd been before, whatever the changes, and to some of the places I'd not yet seen. From Aca dia I'd follow the sun west-by-southwest across America to the Golden Gate. And along the way, or by the end of it, I'd hope to dis cover a park system not merely holding up to the years Acadia style but one that might soon be made strong enough to endure the unimag inable tests of the century to come. THE GREAT OUTSIDE growth of the sunny South, a huge num ber of Americans live within a day's drive of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, athwart the Appalachian backbone of North Carolina and Tennessee; and enough of them turn out annually to keep the place at the top of the list of the nation's most visited national parks (not counting parkways and urban recreation areas). More than nine mil lion people were on top of Old Smoky in 1993. I was one of them. What draws visitors here in such numbers isn't just motorcar convenience or the antic ipated skytop view. What pulls the crowd what provided the rationale for creating a national park here in the first place-is Great Smoky's magnificent half-million-acre forest, the most diverse in all North America and likely the nation's last large reservoir of old growth broadleaf stands. No fewer than five overlapping but distinct forest habitats clothe the mountain coves and slopes as they rise from barely 900 feet to more than 6,500, from pine and oak to spruce and fir. To experience a similar range of life zones closer to sea level, you'd have to back off these mountains and drive all the way from southern Georgia to northern Maine. In Great Smoky, in appropri ate site or season, are all the autumnal forest colors of deciduous New England, the feath ery evergreen winterscape of the North Woods, the showiest spring displays of wild rhododendron and laurel, 2,000 varieties of mushrooms, 1,600 kinds of flowering plants, more than 500 species of lichen and moss. But there was something else that drew me here, a rumor that this forest was in danger of dying-not from an excess of visitors tram pling the terrain inside the park but from an excess of plagues drifting into the treetops from the Great Outside. At park headquarters, a few miles into the forest above Gatlinburg, Tennessee, I called on then Superintendent Randall Pope and put to him the question I had been asking, and would continue to ask, of his peers across the country. What are your toughest problems? Where are the gravest threats? "Air quality," said Pope. "That's number one. And number two's the invasive pest." I'd already had a preview of the pest prob lem, driving down the Blue Ridge Parkway that links Great Smoky with Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Nearing the parkway's North Carolina termi nus, but still high on the ridge, one is sud denly confronted with the spectacle of an entire mountaintop sheathed in a forest of sun-bleached snags, a deadening of Fraser firs, defoliated, white skeletons stabbing the sky. The Fraser fir occurs only in the southern Appalachians. According to Superintendent Pope, two stands of mature firs remain in the park, each under attack by the same pest that has laid waste the firs of the Blue Ridge the balsam woolly adelgid, an exotic insect that probably invaded the U. S. years ago, rid ing piggyback on imported European conifers.