Conservationists See Shenandoah Park Under Siege

By J.R. Pegg

June 16, 2003 (ENS) - There was a time when the scenic vistas tucked into the upper reaches of Shenandoah National Park afforded visitors views of more than 100 miles, but those days are long gone. Shenandoah is plagued with air pollution worse than many urban areas, yet poor air quality is only one of a series of threats to one of the nation's most famous Eastern parks, according to a new report from the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).

In its latest State of the Parks report, the conservation group finds that the health of Shenandoah National Park is under siege by ozone and acid deposition from air pollution, an invasion of nonnative plants and insects, and by chronic underfunding.

"Shenandoah National Park is critically threatened," said Jim Nations, vice president of NPCA's State of the Parks program.

Established in 1935, Shenandoah National Park protects 200,000 acres of some of most scenic mountain terrain on the East Coast, including 300 square miles of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the southern Appalachians.

Seventy miles long with a range that rises 3,500 feet in elevation, the park is home to more than 2,000 native species and is believed to have more diversity in plants and animals than all of Europe.

For much of its history as a national park, Shenandoah has benefited from "benign neglect" that let the park's environment recover from logging and farming, said NPCA's Mid-Atlantic Regional Director Joy Oakes, but now it is need of serious help.

Chief among the internal threats to the park is a tiny aphid-like insect known as the woolly adelgid beetle. shenandoahfall

Many of the 1.5 million annual visitors to Shenandoah come to gaze at the brilliant array of colors found each autumn. (Photo courtesy NPCA)
Believed to have first come to the United States in 1924 from Asia, the adelgid is rampaging through the hemlocks of the Shenandoah.

"This tiny, tiny non-native bug is felling the mighty hemlocks," Oakes said.

The insect is so ingrained in the park that it will probably destroy most of Shenandoah's Eastern hemlock, Oakes said. This results in loss of habitat for songbirds and reduced forest cover for streams, further altering the environment and threatening the natural heritage of the park.

In addition, the once abundant stands of American chestnuts have been thinned by the invasion of the non-native chestnut blight, and other non-native plant species, such as Tree-of-heaven - a prolific seed producer that grows rapidly - continue to alter the make-up of plant communities.

NPCA's report says that the Park Service has made strides in combating some of these invaders, but this effort ultimately comes down to money - and there is not enough to adequately address the park's needs.

"There is a limit to what the Park Service can do when they are not given the resources they need," Oakes said.

The conservation group estimates that Shenandoah National Park is underfunded by some $6.7 million annually. According to the Park Service, the fiscal 2003 budget for Shenandoah was some $10.5 million.

The funding shortfall, Oakes said, "has very practical implications."

Bathrooms are not cleaned as often, there are not as many ranger programs and maintenance issues are left unresolved.

Insufficient funding also impairs the park's ability to assess and protect the area's vast archaeological heritage. The park has more than 100 nationally significant archaeological sites that provide evidence of 10,000 years of human occupation.

Park staffers make decisions based on incomplete data because they do not have information from baseline archaeological and historic preservation studies, according to NPCA, and no money is available to hire additional permanent staff to guide proper management of many of the park's historic and cultural resources. shenandoah

About 95 percent of Shenandoah's freshwater communities are mountain stream habitats, home to 30 species of fish. (Photo courtesy NPCA)
Oakes pointed out that there are a number of community groups and nonprofits that help bridge some of the funding gaps within Shenandoah, helping out with some maintenance of overlooks, trail upkeep and assisting some of the educational programs.

But this does not lessen the federal government's responsibility to look after its national parks.

"It is a commitment that must be fulfilled by Congress for the public, with these groups helping us reach the margin for excellence," Oakes said. "It is not right for the public to have to supply the margin for survival."

And there are some problems - in particular air pollution - that the public can not even begin to address without strong leadership from state and federal government.

Shenandoah is plagued with air pollution from cars and trucks as well as from power plants as far away as the Great Lakes and the Tennessee Valley.

The park often has ozone levels higher than those found in urban areas such as Washington, D.C. and is likely to be one of nine national parks found to be in violation of the new federal standards for ozone.

Ozone hangs in higher elevations and dissipates more slowly than at lower elevations and many of the park's plant species - including cove hardwood, chestnut oak, yellow polar, tulip poplar and milkweed - are suffering from increased exposure.

And although much of the nation has benefited from reduced acid rain exposure through tighter regulations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finds Shenandoah National Park has not reaped these same benefits. shenandoahhazy

On a hazy summer day, visibility from Shenandoah's overlooks can shrink to less than a mile. (Photo courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA))
Nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, primarily from power plants, result in acid deposition that is affecting the soils and aquatic resources of the park, NPCA reports, and acid levels have risen so high in some streams that even the native brook trout, an acid-tolerant species, is at risk.

NPCA says only the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has worse overall air quality than Shenandoah.

The organization criticizes the Bush administration for its failure to strictly enforce federal air pollution standards and for actively trying to relax regulations, along with the state of Virginia for continuing to approve permits for new power plants with little regard for the impact on the park. shenandoahclear

Even on a good day, the average summer visibility of 15 miles is far short of the historic average of 77 miles. (Photo courtesy EPA)
One of the few bright spots within a report heavy with warnings is that the famed views from the park have improved slightly.

But the sooty haze, which adds to the natural haze of the Blue Ridge Mountains caused by photosynthesis, means the once famed 70 mile view of the Washington Monument is confined to history.

Natural visibility in the park has been reduced from an estimated range of 115 miles to an annual average of less than 25 miles; in the summer, the average visual range is now 15 miles compared to the historic average of 77 miles and can be less than one mile on particularly hazy days.

Improving the views from Shenandoah's heights - and the overall health of the park - will require sustained funding and political will, both of which Oakes hopes the public will begin to insist upon.

"It is easy to take a park that is virtually in our backyards for granted," Oakes said. "But Shenandoah is just as spectacular in its own way as Yosemite or Yellowstone and it needs our help."

To view NPCA's report, see