And the Winner Is….


When Alan Spears recently climbed up the rocky trails of Old Rag Mountain in Virginia’s Shenandoahs, he was hoping for that “forever view” that he remembered from his younger days. He recalled a trip up the mountain in the early nineties, in which, “The sky was blue with just a hint of wispy clouds, birds turned lazy circle eights several hundred feet below me, and the visibility extended for 70 miles or more. That morning, the accounts I’d heard of visitors being able to see the Washington Monument from the heights of Shenandoah seemed entirely believable.”

Instead of sweeping views from vistas, however, Alan found he was having trouble making out objects little more than a mile away. A dense and unnatural haze blocked his view – a problem that many visitors to the Blue Ridge Mountains know all too well. And while the primary source of that haze – pollution from old and inefficient coal-fired power plants – is no mystery, the laws passed by Congress to reduce that pollution have been mysteriously ineffective.

Spears is a staff member of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), a group that recently teamed up with Appalachian Voices and Our Children’s Earth to produce a study called “Code Red: America’s Five Most Polluted National Parks.” The study identified Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park as America’s third most polluted national park, with the Great Smoky Mountains winning the dubious distinction of the nation’s most polluted park.

According to Tom Kiernan, president of NPCA, “America’s national parks are the touchstones of our shared history and culture. In some ways, they represent the soul of the nation. They represent our hopes, our dreams, our struggles. They are our absolute best places.”

Unfortunately, the results from Code Red indicate that Americans are treating our parks more as waste dumps for industrial pollutants than as our nation’s best places. The report uses an air pollution index, originally developed by Appalachian Voices for earlier editions of this report, to rank the five most polluted national parks. The index is based on three air quality impacts—haze, ozone, and acid precipitation—and compares data from 1999 to 2003 from 13 national parks with extensive monitoring programs. The top five rankings from the 2004 Code Red report were as follows:

1. Great Smoky Mountains (TN and NC)
2. Mammoth Cave (KY)
3. Shenandoah (VA)
4. Acadia (ME)
5. Sequoia and Kings Canyon (CA)

The top three parks are in the central and southern Appalachians, which, in many ways, is the most air-polluted region of North America. According to a recent study by Abt Associates, a frequent consultant to the EPA, all ten of the nation’s cities with the highest death rates from power-plant pollution are in or near the Appalachian Mountains. For instance, the Tri-cities in East Tennessee has the second highest air-pollution related death rate and Asheville, North Carolina, has the third highest of all metropolitan areas in the country – considerably higher than Los Angeles, Houston, New York and other cities commonly thought of as polluted.

Still getting worse

In addition to providing park rankings for air pollutants, Code Red also looks to see whether smog, haze and acid rain have improved or gotten worse since 1991 – the year after Congress last amended the Clean Air Act.

In signing those 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, the first President Bush stated:

The result of this new Clean Air Act will be that cancer risk, respiratory disease, heart ailments, and reproductive disorders will be reduced; damage to lakes, streams, parks, crops, and forests will greatly be lessened; and visibility will be notably improved. As an added benefit, energy security will on balance be enhanced as utilities and automobiles switch to cleaner burning alternative fuels.

In stark contrast to those promises, Code Red shows that there has been little progress in reducing any aspect of air pollution in our parks. While views did improve slightly at Shenandoah and Mammoth Cave, health-damaging ozone increased significantly at seven of the 13 parks studied since 1991. None of the 13 parks enjoyed a significant decrease in ozone pollution.

Today, the state of pollution in America’s national parks has become the clearest example of how the Clean Air Act, once regarded as a paragon of environmental commitment and forward thinking, now represents a paradox of ineffective enforcement and failed promises.

To Mary Anne Hitt, Executive Director of Appalachian Voices, there is no paradox, however. “Instead of investing money to clean up their pollution after the amendments to the Clean Air Act were passed,” says Hitt, “the big polluters invested their money in campaign contributions to polluter-friendly politicians.”

“There was a phenomenal return on their investment,” Hitt adds. “Today there is an Administration in Washington that is not only refusing to enforce key elements of the Clean Air Act, but is actively working to weaken the law itself.”

Park Pollution Surpassing Cities

In April of 2004, the US Environmental Protection Agency designated hundreds of polluted cities and counties across the country as unhealthful because of ozone, commonly known as smog. While people might expect the air in national parks to be cleaner, especially those like the Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah that are up in the mountains, Code Red shows that ozone in the Smoky Mountains is worse than the smog in almost all major cities in the eastern US. Acadia and Shenandoah
National Parks, as well as the Smoky Mountains, were recently designated by the EPA as unhealthful in ozone.

Increasing pollution is beginning to compromise the reputation of national parks as a prime getaway from the noise and pollution of cities. As NPCA staffer Don Barger put it, “What you see is what you breathe.” Over the last five years, the Smokies have had more than 100 days when breathing is potentially dangerous due to excess ozone. Even healthy visitors and staff are warned to limit exertion of any kind on such days, including hiking and biking.

In addition to threatening human health, this pollution also blocks the beautiful vistas, especially of distant mountains. In a recent survey of Great Smoky Mountains National Park visitors, 84% responded that clear scenic views were “extremely important.” With views disappearing into a dense brown haze, pollution is increasingly seen as bad for business by local business owners.

Eric and Vesna Plakanis, owners of a nature guide service called “A Walk in the Woods” based in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, see this loss of business more directly than most. According to Vesa, “There is no doubt that air pollution in the park has affected our business. During high ozone and low visibility days, we have often had to reroute our hikes and shuttles, sometimes losing business in the process.”

They turn business away rather than endanger their customers’ health. Like many businesses in the region, they are also speaking out to their congressional representatives. One of the more prominent regional businessmen speaking out on air pollution is Hugh Morton.

About a two to three hour drive up the Blue Ridge Parkway from the Smoky Mountains is one of the tallest mountains in the Blue Ridge, Grandfather Mountain. Morton is the owner and general manager of Grandfather Mountain, and is widely seen as one of North Carolina’s foremost conservationists

“If the Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah National Parks are two of the most polluted national parks, what about the Blue Ridge Parkway, which connects the two?” asks Morton. “It’s got to be terrible! Over the decades, I’ve seen the trees die and the views disappear – it’s sad to think we’re one of the most polluted areas in the country.”

A silver lining?

Jim Renfro, a 20-year employee of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is one of the few to find a silver lining to the latest bad news about park pollution.

“We recognize that we have serious air quality problems, and that it’s going to take lots of work to reduce them,” says Renfro, “But at least we know that it can be done.
As we lower regional emissions over the next decade, the most polluted parks have the most to gain.”

In 2003, Renfro received the NPCA Stephen T. Mather award, given annually to people who have demonstrated initiative and resourcefulness in promoting environmental protection in the national parks. As people across the southern mountains work to tackle air pollution problems in the years ahead, the leadership and optimism of people like Renfro will be critical to the success of that important effort.

For more information on the important work the National Parks Conservation Association is doing to protect our parks, or to see a copy of Code Red, visit the NPCA website at:


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