|By Adam Goodheart |
|The quiet splendor and patchwork history of the popular national park offer lessons in how humanity can coexist with nature.|
|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 woodsmoke 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 (2,100 square kilometers), 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.