Clouds loom over the Smokies

CHARLOTTE - Having just celebrated its 75th birthday, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park finds its future threatened by wavering public support for America's green places.

The problem passes from one generation to the next: a chronic lack of financial support in the past, declining visits now and a future shaped by today's children who are spending far less time in the outdoors.

For decades, park advocates say, Congress has starved the national parks of enough money to keep roads, buildings and trails in adequate repair.

The maintenance backlog is now $8 billion, including $230 million in the Smokies alone. Lawmakers have begun to close that gap in the past two years, however, and the Smokies park got a $64 million infusion this spring from the federal stimulus bill.

Still, the Smokies' chronic financial problems have park officials speaking publicly about what up to now has been the unthinkable: an entry fee. It would raise millions but likely set off a firestorm of local opposition from those accustomed to using the park for free.

While it is still the nation's most-visited national park, the number of visitors to the Smokies has dropped for a decade. Last year's count of 9 million people was 12 percent smaller than in the peak year of 1999.

As park numbers dropped, tourist spending rose in the park's gateway towns of Cherokee, Gatlinburg, Tenn., and Pigeon Forge, Tenn., where attractions such as Harrah's casino and the Splash Country water park beckon.

"Our best guess," park spokesman Bob Miller said, "is that although visitors came to the area, they chose to budget their time differently and spent days at other attractions."

Research published last year found steady declines, compared with population growth, since the 1980s in park visits, hunting, camping and hiking in the United States, Japan and Spain. Researchers Oliver Pergams and Patricia Zaradic found "an ongoing and fundamental shift away from nature-based recreation."

That change is most striking among children.

Kids don't play outdoors -splashing in creeks and chasing fireflies - as they once did, numerous studies and most parents will attest. Increasingly sedentary and overweight, they're more likely to be mesmerized by a Wii than a salamander.

"Nature-deficit disorder," author Richard Louv called it in an influential 2005 book. Research has linked lack of unstructured time outdoors to childhood depression, anxiety and behavioral problems.

"If they don't have those experiences, then we're worried that it won't be a priority for future generations to keep natural areas and a clean, healthy environment," said Lisa Tolley, who heads the North Carolina Office of Environmental Education.

Our children will become taxpayers, voters and lawmakers. But will they be lovers of parks?

As tourism declined, the chronically strapped National Park Service cut back on the educational and interpretive programs that click best with the public, park advocates say. Exhibits grew dusty, rangers harder to find.

Smokies staff members say they're trying to make nature fun again for kids. The park's Junior Ranger program, designed for ages 5 to 12, tripled the number of participating kids after a marketing campaign launched three years ago, said education chief Karen Ballentine. More than 6,000 earned their badges last year.

Once, the kids might have simply trailed a ranger on a nature walk. Now the park appeals to kids with offerings such as "Whose Poop's on My Boots?" - which teaches them to identify animals by their scat and tracks.

"Two parents told our staff their kids made them leave Dollywood to make a Junior Ranger program," Ballentine said, "so that made us feel pretty good."

In collaboration with local schools that reach 15,000 students a year, the park buses students into the Smokies and sends rangers into classrooms. Teachers work as summer-season rangers and attend science workshops in the park. Thousands more kids each year study nature at the nonprofit Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont.

A few lucky students work as summer interns based at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center, a research and education facility perched on 5,086-foot Purchase Knob on the North Carolina side of the park.

Kelci McDaniel, 18, spent six weeks this year helping research high-altitude songbirds, bait non-lethal bear traps and study fish. "I basically hiked all summer," she said, and she hopes to study biology in college.

Outdoor recreation - from hunting to football - is a big part of life in Canton, her mountain community west of Asheville. But even there, Kelci said, some classmates were engrossed in video games.

"I find it incredible," she said. "I can't imagine people not wanting to be outside."

The success of such programs could help decide the parks' future, experts say.

"There is a real danger of erosion of support for the parks" if children lose interest, said Bill Wade, a former Shenandoah National Park superintendent. "But we're hopeful that programs that can bring youth to national parks for work or education projects can help forestall that problem."