Trapped in the Cove
Editor: David Brill; Assistant Editor: Constance Griffith; Writers: Kris Christen, Lisa Byerley Gary, Elise LeQuire, Dennis McCarthy, and Becky Nichols. Graphic Designer: Lisa Byerley Gary.
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Trapped in the Cove
With visitation to Cades Cove increasing three times faster than Park visitation as a whole, planners hope to resolve traffic congestion that's spoiling views and fueling road rage.
BY Kris Christen
How many cars are too many? That's the number-one question on the minds of planners concerned with protecting the quality of each visitor's experience in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP).
Renowned for its scenic beauty, abundant wildlife, and numerous historical structures, Cades Cove can be a congestion nightmare for some 2 million visitors each year who throng the popular, 11-mile loop road throughout the summer months and during the colorful fall foliage season. And the trend threatens to worsen, making it even more difficult for visitors to avoid the traffic.
"There was a time when we only had congestion here for eight weeks in summer and two weeks in the fall, but the fastest-growing periods of visitation to the Park have been in what used to be the off-season," says Bob Miller, GSMNP spokesperson. "So it's not unheard of to go out to Cades Cove on weekends in December or March and get stuck in a traffic jam."
In fact, if Cades Cove were a national park on its own, it would rank in the top 10 percent of the most-visited national park units nationwide, including not only Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks, but also places like the Blue Ridge Parkway and New York City's Gateway National Recreation Area, according to Miller.
The impacts of this run on the Cove are many, but the primary issue according to Park officials, is visitor enjoyment. "We get tons of complaints from people who are irate because others won't pull over," Miller says. "It's a one-way, one-lane loop, and if there's a bear a mile ahead, everybody will have to get out to take a picture, and there's not always room to pull over, so traffic can't continue past."
Also high on the list of impacts is the wildlife harassment that occurs when people chase or surround bears, deer, and other animals for a closer look, behavior over which rangers have little control, Miller notes. And the footprint of beaten-down areas along the loop roadway is expanding as more drivers pull over or pass on any flat areas that aren't fenced off.
Moreover, long lines of cars contribute to air pollution and degrade visitor enjoyment of the Cove. While Cove traffic isn't a measurable contributor to the Park's air-pollution problem as a whole, "experiencing the Cove under conditions of congestion puts you light years away from what it might've been like to live there historically," Miller points out.
Another big concern is visitor safety. For instance, if somebody has a heart attack at the back of the loop road, rangers don't have a quick, easy way to respond, Miller says.
Motorbikes and other forms of transportation have been considered for such situations, but these vehicles aren't fast enough, don't carry as much as four-wheeled vehicles, and can't be used in all weather conditions.
To begin addressing the congestion problem, the National Park Service (NPS) has partnered with the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization (KRTPO). Together, they've established the Regional Transportation Alternatives Plan. One element of the plan called for a general technology assessment of Cades Cove, now completed, which provides a foundation for further study and planning efforts for the Cades Cove Development Concept and Transportation Management Plan scheduled to begin early in 2002.
The technology assessment nailed down 13 different conveyances for the Cove, ranging from the ordinaryrail systems, trams, trolleys, and shuttle busesto the extraordinary: a reservation system where visitors would have to preregister for a time slot to drive through the Cove. This preliminary study looked at the strengths and weaknesses of each technology, how much it would cost, how many passengers it could carry, and how often vehicles would need to depart to accommodate projected growth in tourism over the next 30 years, according to Teresa Cantrell, NPS transportation planner.
"We looked at each technology in terms of capacity, size, and weight of vehicles; maximum road slope; turning radiuses; reliability; types of alternative fuels that could be used; general operating costs; typical prototype vehicle costs; and impact on visitor experience," Cantrell says.
Which technology would best suit the Cove is difficult to say. "Each had pluses and minuses at either end of the spectrum," Cantrell says. For instance, a light rail or monorail system would require a huge infrastructure investment, but could transport a lot of people efficiently. Open trams or conventional buses would require little new infrastructure because they could operate on existing roads, but they aren't particularly well-suited for the high volume of visitors that the Cove receives.
"Now that we've identified the technologies, we need to take a comprehensive look at which technology or set of technologies best fits the Cove in terms of enhancing the visitor experience and protecting the Cove's natural and cultural resources that keep people coming back year after year," Cantrell says.
This comprehensive,18-month study began in January 2002 and will encompass more than an analysis of the identified options. "You first have to determine what you want Cades Cove to be and how you want visitors to experience the Cove," says Jeff Welch, KRTPO director. "Based on the answers to those questions, you design a transportation system to meet those objectives."
Consequently, the project will also include a study of natural resources, economic analyses, cultural analyses, and visitor- experience surveys, Welch says.
In addition to analyzing impacts on the Cove and the Park, the study will also try to identify potential ripple effects on the communities located near the Cove. "If we institute some kind of transit system in the Cove, what will that mean for Townsend, Gatlinburg, and Pigeon Forge?" Cantrell asks. Would visitors spend more time in these gateway communities or just park their cars there? And finding a place to park the thousands of cars while visitors ride the conveyances will also be a challenge, Miller says.
In communities located near the Park's entrance, residents are well aware that any type of mass-transit system in Cades Cove will require significant parking facilities, most likely in their neighborhoods, but they see this endeavor more as an opportunity than a liability.
"If we could get traffic congestion solved in Cades Cove, it would be a real public-relations boon, because that's probably the biggest concern of anybody traveling to the Smokies," says Steve Wilson, public-relations manager for the Gatlinburg Department of Tourism. "It's the number-one problem facing us, according to all of our surveys."
In Townsend, the most likely parking-lot location because of the town's proximity to Cades Cove, officials express some concern over the accompanying development that such a staging area might bring. "We don't want to see the Tuckaleechee Cove and Townsend area developed into another Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge," says Herb Handly, executive vice president for tourism at Townsend's Smoky Mountain Convention and Visitors Bureau. Instead of another theme park, the region is seeking to create a heritage community, highlighting the area's scenic beauty, slower pace, and historical sites.
If it's done right, however, Townsend officials are optimistic that a mass-transit system operating from their town to Cades Cove could help curb congestion in the community, as well as in the Park. Sandy Headrick, Townsend's mayor, foresees a system that picks people up at their motels and transports them to shops and attractions in Townsend as well as to the Cove.
Because Cades Cove is the ultimate destination of tourists visiting and staying in Townsend and the Tuckaleechee Cove region, "it's important to us that they have a good experience in the Cove," Handly says.
Wanted: Public Participation
As the study on mass-transit options for Cades Cove gets underway, the major focus will be on gathering ideas from the public and making sure the community knows what's going on.
"One of the big challenges in planning [for national
parks] is that you're doing the planning for a national audience with largely local input," Miller notes. "We'll have to use a variety of tools because, while it's easy to talk to residents in Townsend or Knoxville, it's hard to get [input from] those folks who travel hundreds of miles to the Park."
These tools will include open houses, newsletters, Web sites, and meetings with special interest groups, NPS staff, and the gateway communitiesall with the goal of soliciting people's thoughts on what they'd like to seeor not seein the region.
Past visitor surveys show that visitors are happy about their experience in the Cove, "but if you ask them about traffic, they're divided on what they think we should do about it," Miller says. Many people already don't come to the Park at certain times of the year, says Miller, because traffic and overcrowding take them beyond their comfort level.
For more information or to send comments, contact Teresa Cantrell, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 107 Park Headquarters Road, Gatlinburg, TN 37738, 865-436-1241; Kelley Segars, Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization, Suite 403 City County Building, 400 Main Street, Knoxville, TN 37902, 865-215-4001; or go to <http://www.knoxtrans.org> and click on the link for Foothills Parkway/Cades Cove study.
Other National Parks Struggle, Too
Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) isn't the only park struggling with congestion issues. Growing visitation of the national park system in general is raising a lot of concern, says Robert Manning, a professor at the University of Vermont's School of Natural Resources. Through various types of visitor surveys, Manning does carrying-capacity research and management to help national parks determine how much use can be accommodated without unacceptable impacts on either natural and cultural resources or the quality of visitor experience.
"We try to get judgements from people about the points at which they begin to notice increasing amounts of environmental impacts in terms of vegetation destruction and soil compaction and when they begin to object to these impacts," Manning says. In the course of his research, he's finding more often that mass-transit systems are replacing private automobiles in national parks; GSMNP will be looking at these models more closely in the coming months.
Grand Canyon National Park, for instance, has a free tram system that takes visitors to the most popular scenic overlooks and trailheads, says GSMNP spokesperson Bob Miller. In fact, the Park Service is now in the process of upgrading the Grand Canyon system, which already includes commercial rail service from Phoenix and Flagstaff, to an expanded tram service that will require parking outside the Park boundaries altogether.
In other national parks, such as Yosemite, the gate is closed once available parking spaces are filled, Miller says. Denali National Park in Alaska has had a bus system in place for several decades, and Arches National Park in Utah has gotten fairly aggressive about enforcing "no overflow" parking, Manning says.
The best model for Cades Cove, however, might be in Zion National Park in southeastern Utah. The area has very little developable land along the 12-mile canyon floor, and the two-lane road that winds through it, like Cades Cove, has few pull-outs to accommodate cars. Zion's solution to its traffic problem is a mandatory bus system, which offers parking at the Park entrance in Springdale.
"There used to be a steady stream of cars backed up to get through the canyon, and people would drive around and around waiting for one of those spaces to open up so they could get out of their cars," Miller says, which resulted in fist fights over parking spaces. "The people who went through that recognize that not only is it quicker to get where you're going with the new system, but it's a lot less stressful than before."
For the most part, mass-transit systems have been well received in the national parks, Manning says, although he admits there's typically a fair amount of resistance in the beginning. "Once systems are put in place, though, I think people do see the benefits," he says. "And one of the most important benefits is that these systems may allow more people to visit the national parks without limitations."