Last October I spent four days hiking the backcountry of the Great Smoky Mountains on the Appalachian Trail. I went during one of the most popular times to visit the mountains- when the leaves change colors- and to say it was an incredible experience is an understatement. Although it was wet and windy the entire trip, rarely have I seen so many different shades of gold, yellow, red, orange, and green in one place in nature.
The Great Smoky Mountains contain more tree species than all of northern Europe and more species of vascular plants than any other North American park. This explains the immense variety of colors I saw in the trees. It has been designated as an International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site, and it’s easy to see why. Yet the park hasn’t always been preserved and its history is what makes the Great Smoky Mountains even more awe-inspiring.
Hunting, farming, burning, logging, mining, pollution: The Great Smokies have a long history of human impact. The Cherokees and other Native American tribes were the first to work on this land, and although they had a smaller footprint on the environment than their successors, they still hunted, farmed, and burned the land. In the 1800s, American and European settlers began moving into the region, burning and clearing the forest to make room for agriculture and pastureland for their animals to graze. With the arrival of industrial logging in the late 19th and beginning of the 20th century came the most environmentally destructive era for the Great Smoky Mountains. High demand for lumber products caused the clear-cutting of the Smokies’s old-growth, virgin forests. Mining and railroad companies flocked to the mountains along with the lumber companies, resulting in heavy deforestation, fires and erosion. By the time the Great Smoky Mountains were declared a national park in 1934, 2/3 of the forest had already been logged.
In recent times, even with its designation as a national park, the Great Smokies have been affected by other human factors, most notably air pollution. Air pollution from coal-fired power plants and automobiles in the region have weakened the immune systems of trees like the fraser firs and eastern hemlocks in the park, leaving them more susceptible to a non-native beetle called the woolly adelgid, which infests and eventually kills trees. Air pollutants, specifically ground-level ozone, which disrupts plants’ photosynthesis processes and hinders growth, have also affected the park’s plants, where at one time 90% of black cherry trees and milkweed plants showed symptoms of ozone damage. Acid rain, another manifestation of air pollution, has caused streams in the park to be more acidic than they were 20 years ago. And although intervention in the form of government settlements (such as the EPA and Tennessee Valley Authority settlement in 2011), regulations (Clean Air Act Amendments of 1977 and 1990 and the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule in 2011), and air monitoring programs has addressed the issue of air quality in the park, air pollution has made its mark. For instance, it will take over 30 years for the water quality to improve from its acidic state.
After learning of the park’s history and then witnessing the landscape’s diversity and abundance on my trek, it almost seemed impossible that such an extraordinary place could have such a past. But then the Great Smokies demonstrated something to me that I so easily forget when I dwell solely on human’s degradation of the environment: nature is resilient, when given the chance. Specifically, my trek retaught me three lessons about nature’s resiliency that I believe are essential to keep in mind when we think about sustainability and our role in the future of our planet.
1. Nature is resilient, but it takes a lot of time and work. The Great Smoky Mountains are a prime example of the restoration that nature can undergo, if given the chance and adequate conditions. The Smokies have had a history of heavy human impact, but if you didn’t know, you would have a hard time imagining it when visiting the majestic park. With time the natural vegetation in the park has grown back on its own. Today mature trees stand tall in parts of the forest that were once logged, and vegetation native to the landscape has come back in areas that were once gardens and homes. This did not happen overnight though, and it is still in the process of stabilization; restoration projects are still taking place today to help rehabilitate natural areas. Which leads us to the second point.
2. Humans are a part of the system. We are often reminded that humans are the reason for most environmental degradation seen on the planet today. And although this is true, we are also a large part of the rehabilitation of the environment. The Great Smoky Mountains demonstrates this clearly in the protection, reforestation, restoration, and rehabilitation processes it has undergone. We declared the area as protected and have since aided in the park’s restoration (through efforts like stream restoration and native species planting). Similarly, although humans contributed to the disappearance of elk and river otter before the park became protected, we also helped in reintroducing efforts to bring these species back to the park. In short, simply because we are the cause of much environmental maladies, we also have the responsibility of helping nature bounce back.
3. We don’t know the threshold. Although we do know nature is resilient, we don’t know how much pressure ecosystems can take without being completely crippled forever. Not everything is resilient to human impact; animals such as bison, wolves and mountain lions, that were once a part of the Great Smokies landscape, disappeared with the onset of human settlements within the area. These animals did not come back with the creation of the national park, some not even with reintroduction attempts. Settler’s pastureland from the 1800’s have become the park’s grassy balds like Spence Field, areas where natural vegetation did not return after the grazing of cattle left its mark. Climate change is another human-caused threat that the park is having to face- how much of the park will be lost in nature’s attempts to fight, adapt, and become resilient to a changing climate? We don’t know nature’s threshold and we should not test it.
Nature is resilient, and with time, as well as the right circumstances, it can rebound. Of course we cannot forget that human actions are often the cause of destruction, nor can we rely on nature’s resiliency as a mitigation measure to human-caused environmental degradation. But if we recognize that humans and the planet are inextricably interconnected and if we allow nature to operate properly on its own, acting as partners of the system rather than the masters, we don’t have to despair in nature’s demise.
It is equally important to reflect on these lessons when we are faced with individual decisions and the choice to act sustainably or not. We have two options in making our decisions, even the trivial, quotidian decisions that we may not think make a difference in the big scheme of things. We have the option to think pessimistically, thinking that sustainability is never going to take root, or the option to acknowledge that our decisions today can have a positive impact, if we so choose. If we choose to live with our responsibility of safeguarding the planet, we can contribute to the resiliency of nature, even as individuals. In this, I find optimism.
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