The Tremont area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a peaceful world beyond cell phones, text messages, and traffic. The heart of Tremont is the Middle Prong of the Little River, which meanders through hillsides of lush, green trees and dense patches of rhododendron. Born in the highest elevations of the Smokies, the Middle Prong fills the valley with a gentle symphony as the cool water begins its long journey to the sea. This is my single favorite place in the world.
Although difficult to imagine today, Tremont was once the center of a massive logging operation. In the early 1900s, the Little River Lumber Company used steam locomotives to harvest centuries-old trees all along the Middle Prong. After only thirty years of logging operations, Tremont was a vast clear-cut wasteland that resembled a lunar landscape. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1935, just as the appetite for timber in Tremont was satiated. Since then, the preservation that accompanies national park status has returned the area to a state of wilderness, but generations will pass before anyone enjoys the splendor of the next old-growth forest in Tremont.
In the end, I hope the story of Tremont remains one of redemption.
The story of Tremont is an example of rebirth–the resurrection of wilderness in the wake of careless acts of humanity that destroyed an ecosystem. Yes, today Tremont undoubtedly confirms the need for preservation. As a result, it also might be tempting to consider the story of Tremont as one of redemption. I personally love that idea, but I’m not sure it is completely true. That’s because, if you look just a little deeper, you find that Tremont faces a new generation of adversaries. And these adversaries are much more subtle than a clear-cut logging operation!
I was reminded of one of these adversaries last weekend while hiking in Tremont in search of elusive photographic magic. The adversary in this case was ground-level ozone, which I could smell while taking photographs. That’s right! I could smell ozone while taking pictures in Tremont! How do I know, you might ask? Well, because I’m a chemist and I worked with ozone as part of some research projects years ago. Hmmm…maybe you don’t know about ozone? Well, let me tell you. Ozone is a colorless gas in low concentrations. You can’t see it, but you can smell it. To my nose, it has a faint, clean smell almost reminiscent of dilute bleach. It is so subtle that, if you have visited Tremont in the summer, you may have smelled it without even knowing what it is! To be clear, ozone is a very good thing high above us in the stratosphere, but here at ground level, it is a bad thing. By the way, none of this is news. The presence of ozone the Smokies has been known for a long time. Check out the Smokies website to learn more about it.
So, isn’t it crazy that there would be ozone in such a pristine location as Tremont? And why on earth is it there? Well, ozone is a unique form of oxygen that is created when sunlight interacts with certain air pollutants and oxygen. Of course, in the summertime, there is plenty of sunlight and, well, unfortunately, plenty of pollutants, too. Scientists monitor ozone levels in the Smokies and they believe most of the ozone comes from Atlanta and other surrounding urban areas outside the park.
Ultimately, you may ask if this is this a problem. Well, ozone is a strong irritant and it just isn’t good for you. Not to mention the fact that it shouldn’t even be a possibility in a national park. But it is what it is at this point. You can imagine that it will take some very big solutions for a problem this big. Of course, there are potential solutions, but they are difficult, and it doesn’t seem like there is much we can do about it at this point. Sure, let’s go fix the traffic in Atlanta. No problem!
Here is a triptych of images I created while breathing the ozone along the Middle Prong last weekend. As you can see, this place is worth protecting. In the end, I hope the story of Tremont remains one of redemption. I hope these images help you appreciate that too. Now…when you are presented with an opportunity to help in a preservation effort for the Smokies, no matter how small, I hope you will take advantage of it!