Center for the State of the Parks: Park Assessments
Published June 2003
Born from a desire in the 1920s to establish additional national parks in the East, Shenandoah National Park initially consisted of a collection of properties that seemed to hold promise. Today, the park is a remarkable slice of southern Appalachian natural history and natural beauty. Shenandoah supports a rich mix of mountain forests and streams, outstanding wildlife habitat, artifacts that testify to prehistoric and more recent cultures, a wide range of historic buildings as well as those built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and a dazzling array of recreation opportunities. It is the destination of choice for 1.5 million people each year.
But beneath its magnificence, Shenandoah is a park in jeopardy. Years of inadequate funding coupled with serious threats to the park's resources are taking a toll. The challenge is to conserve what exists now, and in some cases to restore degraded resources, to ensure that the park remains healthy.
The most significant challenge is that rising costs are outpacing budgets, eroding the National Park Service's purchasing power and constricting its ability to conserve and manage Shenandoah. As one example, despite abundant archaeological sites, park staff have not completed even a baseline study and have no money to hire an archaeologist.
Shenandoah also faces increasingly serious effects from poor air quality and invasions of aggressive non-native species-threats that arise in large part from outside the park. Ground-level ozone pollution threatens the health of flora, fauna, park visitors, and staff. On many days, the air in the park is no different than the air in Richmond, Virginia, or Washington, D.C. Acid rain threatens trout species, and haze caused by air pollution has reduced average annual visibility at scenic overlooks from about 115 miles to less than 25.
Non-native plant species now account for an estimated 20 percent of all those documented in the park. Many non-native species have out-competed natives and are well established including destructive insects. Two of the most destructive, the non-native gypsy moth and hemlock wooly adelgid, are having a profound effect on the park's forests. In fact, the wooly adelgid has killed a majority of the towering hemlock forests throughout the park.
Shenandoah is also feeling the effects of land development adjacent to its long, highly irregular, and largely unbuffered border. Originally envisioned as a much larger park surrounded by farms, development is now up against the park's boundary. This has fragmented vital wildlife habitat, severing natural travel corridors and hindering access to food.