A national park since 1926, the Great Smokies at times seem overshadowed by the spectacular parks of the west: Zion, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone. In fact, a list I saw of the best national parks only includes one park in the eastern US: Acadia.
I visited this park a few years back, and I can see why some might not be enthralled by the intensely tourist-driven attractions that bump up against the natural areas—Dollywood, Ripley, and Titanic are just a few of the most heavily-visited. (I actually liked Dollywood; there was some nice landscaping and a pleasant, family feel, with very pretty cabins surrounding it. But it was a media tour and we were alone in the park, so there’s that.)
As for the park itself, it’s beautiful, with streams running through it in most places, grand stands of trees, including gorgeous dogwoods, and lovely wildflowers. I photographed several varieties I’d never seen. The park is also filled with important history of early Appalachian settlements, including cabins, watermills, and cemeteries. After the visit (which, of course, included hiking up to the top of Old Smoky), I vowed to go back someday when I would have more time, when it wasn’t a media trip.
And then, this headline in the Times yesterday: “It was like driving into hell.” Over 14,000 people were evacuated from Gatlinburg and more from Pigeon Forge, where I stayed, after an outbreak of wildfires started Monday, 11/28. As of today, seven have died.
As many Tennessee gardeners have been commenting for the last couple months, the area has been suffering from extreme, crippling drought, which no doubt is instrumental in triggering these fires. North Carolina, Georgia, and other southern states have also suffered this year. I think, too, that dead hemlocks (wooly aldegid), which we all noticed during our visit, could have contributed dry fuel in the case of the Smokies.
It’s not a slam dunk to point the finger at climate change. You have to be careful. But reputable sources do indicate that long periods of drought may become the new normal in areas of the south that a few decades ago were kept pretty wet over the summer months. We may be looking at regular wildfire occurrences—which is really bad news for this heavily populated area and its beautiful forests, parks, and preserves.Posted by Elizabeth Licata on December 1, 2016 at 12:00 pm, in the category Gardening on the Planet, Ministry of Controversy.