By WADE RAWLINS
Raleigh News & Observer
April 24, 2005
Three days of unhealthy air so far this month equals the number of ozone alert days in the Smokies for all of last year. And ozone season has just begun.
"It's discouraging, really discouraging," said Plakanis, who doesn't take hikers out on high ozone days because of the risk of respiratory harm. "It gives the lining of your lungs something akin to a sunburn."
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a half-million acres of wilderness, icy streams and head-turning views along the North Carolina-Tennessee line, is the nation's most visited park, and its most polluted. Famed for its natural bluish mists, the Smokies are gaining notoriety for an unnatural white haze that often reduces the famous 100-mile views to less than 20 miles in summer.
Air pollution, destructive invasive pests and a surplus of people all threaten the park's future.
Air monitors in the park record high levels of ozone, particularly at higher elevations. In the upper atmosphere, ozone protects the Earth from harmful rays. But ground-level ozone is a gaseous pollutant formed when emissions from power plants, factories and automobiles react in sunlight. It's harmful to breathe, particularly for the young, the elderly and people with respiratory problems.
Among exhibits on flowers and wildlife in the park's Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg, Tenn., is a display on air quality showing daily ozone levels.
Jim Renfro, air quality manager at the park, said the park has some of the highest air pollution levels of any national park. Renfro said several years of wetter, cooler weather and the Tennessee Valley Authority's installation of pollution controls on two power plants have lowered pollution, which peaked in 1999 with 52 bad air days.
"Five years of data I would not call a trend, but it is a signal that things are starting to improve," Renfro said. "There are no measures that are getting worse. They are either remaining stable or improving. That is good news."
Still, ozone levels doubled in the park between 1988 and 1999 during years of record heat, and they remain high.
"It's still way above what it was in 1988," said Howard Neufeld, a plant ecologist at Appalachian State University and principal researcher on EPA and park service studies of air pollution in the Smokies.
Neufeld documented 90 species of plants and trees in the park that have shown leaf damage, lower seed production or slower growth because of pollution.
"The major difficulty for the park is a lot of pollution is coming from the Midwest," Neufeld said.
Dick and Judy Nielsen, a retired couple from Saginaw, Mich., have been visiting the Smokies periodically for 25 years for its natural beauty. They climbed to the top of Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park, to admire the view, which was reduced by haze.
"It seems especially bad today," Judy Nielsen said. "I had an asthma episode halfway to the top."
The park is visited by more than 9 million people a year, and not all observe the adage to leave no trace.
Backpacker Elizabeth Hobday, 26, a musician who began hiking the Appalachian Trail in late March, paused at Newfound Gap, near Clingmans Dome, the trail's midpoint in the Smokies. Hobday said she had seen a lot of wildlife but also disturbing signs of people.
"Very few of the shelters have privies," Hobday said. "You'll go down below the shelter and see toilet paper everywhere."
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.