Published: August 2006
Seasons of Smoke
The quiet splendor and patchwork history of the popular national park offer lessons in how humanity can coexist with nature.
By Adam Goodheart

Surely these are, if nothing else, the most perfectly named mountains in the world. "Great Smoky Mountains": The words conjure fog drifting off a breathing canopy of trees, mist rising above a waterfall, the soft warmth of southern air. Perhaps, as well, the tang of barbecue chased down with moonshine whiskey. But whoever may have coined that poetic phrase, his identity, or hers, is lost to history. Some say it harks back to the Cherokee word for blue—shaconage—for these ancient summits seem cloaked in the wood-smoke of a thousand vanished council fires.

When its boosters brag about the qualities of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, they mention both its wildness ("the last great virgin forest in the East") and its proximity to civilization ("within a day's drive of more than a third of the U.S. population"). It seems an impossible paradox, especially as you inch your way through Gatlinburg on Highway 441 toward the park's busiest entrance, past an unbroken wall of motels, waffle houses, and T-shirt shops on either side. How could an area like this possibly contain some of the most verdant habitats and sublime mountain vistas in eastern North America?

Yet once inside the park itself—through which Highway 441 continues, but now as a kind of tunnel through lush foliage—it is clear that you have entered a different world. The park's 814 square miles, stretching in an oblong mass across the Tennessee–North Carolina border, put it nearly on a scale with great western parks like Yosemite. But visitors who come in search of Ansel Adams landscapes may be disappointed. They will find no glaciers here, no geysers, no heart-stopping canyons. There are, wrote one early traveler, Horace Kephart, "no ribs and vertebrae of the earth exposed. Seldom does one see even a naked ledge of rock."

Instead, these ancient, eroded mountains are covered by a living carpet of green. The vast wealth of the Smokies is in the region’s profusion of animal and plant life—riches that have only recently begun to be fully appreciated. Since 1997, a coalition of scientists, naturalists, and citizen volunteers has undertaken a treasure hunt to identify and catalog every single species found in the park. The survey is the most ambitious and sustained effort of its kind ever conducted in North America.

So far the tally stands at 14,000 and counting—among them some 600 living organisms previously unknown to science, many of which probably exist nowhere else. Most of these are not what one would call "charismatic" species: They include snails, beetles, moths, and new types of algae. Still, scientists say the findings indicate a level of biodiversity rivaled by few other places on the planet outside the great tropical rain forests. And they believe that the Smokies' ultimate species total may reach ten times the current count.

A conspiracy of factors made these mountains a near-perfect hothouse of biodiversity, according to Keith Langdon, one of the project's coordinators. The north-south orientation of the Appalachian chain helped: During the last ice age, many species took refuge from the glaciers here, fleeing southward along protected valleys. The Smokies also have a diverse underlying geology, and a heavy annual rainfall fueled by tropical air from the Gulf of Mexico. Most important, dramatic changes in elevation mean that this relatively small region encompasses a stunning variety of ecosystems. "When you hike from the lowlands to the upcountry here, it's like hiking from Georgia to Maine," Langdon said.

In fact, for anyone who grew up somewhere in that long stretch of the United States, walking in these woods is like experiencing familiar landscapes that have been somehow enriched, enlivened, concentrated. Meadows hum withbees, groves of hemlocks echo with the knock of woodpeckers, barred rays of sunlight shift and dance above the surface of a trout stream: It is as if a thousand well-loved meadows, a thousand groves, a thousand streams, had all been distilled into this mythic forest, this eastern Eden.

Thanks to their sheltered isolation, the Smokies are—or once were—a kind of cultural biosphere reserve, as well as an ecological one. One local person who is well aware of that is Mike Maples, whose European-American forebears began settling here in the late 1700s. “There’s not a place in the park where I’m not rich in cousins,” he boasted. Maples, an avid amateur historian, spoke in the present tense, but the truth is that all those kinfolk have been gone for dec-ades, dispersed when the national park was created in the 1930s. Unlike most of the western parks, which were carved out of vast holdings of fed-eral land, Great Smoky Mountains National Park was stitched together from thousands of small tracts, including farms and villages that had existed for a century or more.

This part of Appalachia was the ancestral home of the Cherokee and one of the first frontiers of the fledgling United States, where the restless energies of the young nation spilled over into a green new land. Tough Scotch-Irish veterans of the Revolution made their way, rifles in hand, along the chain of mountains. They and their descendants built communities in which old ways died hard, family feuds died even harder, and moonshining was a way of life. (Without decent roads, turning your corn crop into liquor was the only way to get it handily to market.)

Although the Park Service has preserved scores of scattered buildings, not much is left of many settlements but some gnarled fence posts in the woods, a few tumbled chimney stacks, and perhaps a small cemetery on a muddy hillside. There also remains a lingering resentment of the park among some local families who were forced to give up hard-won lands and livelihoods.

I met one of the last of the dispossessed, 96-year-old Gudger Palmer, at a reunion of families that once lived in the park's Cataloochee Valley. Palmer's great-grandfather, in the 1830s, cleared with his own hands fields that have now been made wilderness again. "I used to mow hay right here, with a horse-drawn mowing machine," Palmer said, pointing to a meadow where elk, reintroduced to the park several years ago, now roam. "There were about a thousand people in this valley, including children. It feels like home still. People didn't want to go, but we knew we had to."

Maples shares the sentiment but has also come to terms with the past. "My grandmother hated the park till her last day on Earth. But if it weren't for the park, what would all this be now? Nothing but condos and hotels, probably."

The Smokies are, by some measures, the most visited national park in the country, yet the great majority of visitors never set foot on an unpaved surface. They may stop by the park visitors center or drive the scenic loop at Cades Cove—a grassy valley where cars crawl bumper to bumper as people lean out of windows to photograph deer—but they never glimpse the backcountry trails, just a few miles away, where even on a summer weekend you can hike all day and encounter scarcely another living soul.

Great Smoky also suffers from some of the worst air pollution of any national park in the country, thanks not just to those cars but also to coal-burning power plants and factories throughout the eastern United States. When you hike a ridgeline on an overcast day, you may be inhaling rain clouds that have the approximate acidity of vinegar and ozone pollution that rivals nearby cities. Not surprisingly, many trees along those ridges are dead or dying, although the dirty air serves only to weaken them. The actual killers are exotic insects and other plagues. An invasive blight in the 1930s all but erased the mighty American chestnut. More recent invaders threaten the park's hemlocks, dogwoods, butternuts, beeches, spruces, and firs. "What will the forests look like 20 years from now? Probably very different," said backcountry manager George Minnigh.

Crisis and change are not new to these woods. One weekend I hiked up Hazel Creek, the still-remote area where Horace Kephart camped a century ago. A writer and ethnographer, Kephart came to these mountains in 1904, drawn by his love of wilderness and of communities where he found the 18th cen-tury still living undisturbed in the 20th. "All about us was the forest primeval," he wrote in his most famous book, Our Southern Highlanders, a vivid anecdotal account of life among moonshiners and mountain folk. "Our settlement was a mere slash in the vast woodland that encompassed it."

Years later Kephart returned to the area to find it altered beyond recognition. "Industrial logging had come to Hazel Creek. They'd just raped it," said my hiking companion Kenneth Wise, a librarian and Kephart aficionado. After the big lumber companies ramped up logging in the Smokies in the early 1900s, about 80 percent of the forest was clear-cut and turned into clapboard houses, newsprint, and World War I biplane struts.

Fighting to save what was left, Kephart became one of the earliest and most eloquent advocates for a national park in the Smokies. Today, robust second-growth forest covers the hillsides along Hazel Creek. Even that "mere slash" in the wilderness has vanished almost without a trace.

Everyone, including the most casual visitors to the park—the ones just passing through on Highway 441 on their way to someplace else—stops to take a picture at Newfound Gap. It is the notch where the road crosses the ridgeline between North Carolina and Tennessee, and from the highest point there is a panoramic view of green peaks stretching row on row into the farthest distance. In the parking lot one summer afternoon, road-tripping parents and kids mingled with Chinese-speaking tourists and grizzled Appalachian Trail through-hikers.

Newfound Gap is also the spot where, on September 2, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a speech dedicating Great Smoky Mountains National Park. "FOR THE PERMANENT ENJOYMENT OF THE PEOPLE," reads a plaque on the stone observation tower beneath which the President spoke. Those people included thousands of schoolchildren who donated pennies to help purchase the family farms of Gudger Palmer and others.

As I stood looking at the plaque and the green expanse beyond, it occurred to me that even more than other national parks, Great Smoky is not just a natural phenomenon but also a human, political one. The wilderness below me was, in a very real sense, man-made. And perhaps, in a crowded world, a place like this can offer hopeful clues to how we can continue coexisting with nature—or early warning signs of what we stand to lose.