An American Park

Shenandoah National Park pairs the crucial protection of wilderness with an ugly and undemocratic genesis

graphic depicting a hiker overlooking a valley

Shenandoah National Park in north-central Virginia, a rocky forested nearly 200,000-acre elongated portion of the Blue Ridge Mountains, was named after the adjacent Shenandoah Valley, which itself is named for the northbound river that joins the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry and whose name is generally thought to mean “Daughter of the Stars” in a forgotten Native American language.

The park’s northern border is just 75 miles from the creeping sprawl of Washington, DC. It feels a world away, notwithstanding the geographic proximity of these disparate entities. Yet it’s rumored that, despite the typically dense humidity and heightening levels of smog arising from the varicose network of urban, suburban, and exurban roadways that creep ever southward, a visitor with binoculars can look eastward, while standing directly at the interpretation signpost at the Hogwallow Flats overlook (milepost 14; in the park’s North District), and under certain conditions may witness a uniquely, gratifyingly American spectacle.

If it’s a very clear, wintery day with low humidity, and if in the mid- to late morning you look directly at the point of confluence of a slight gap between the distant ridges, and if the trees directly below the overlook have not yet grown tall enough to obstruct the view, and if you are determined enough to endure the hazy atmospheric fluctuations and the unending interruptions of stop-photo-go vehicular tourists, you may be rewarded with a vision that perfectly illustrates this centennial year of the US National Park Service.

photo of Shenandoah National ParkPhoto by Shenandoah National ParkShenandoah’s northern border is just 75 miles from Washington, DC.

Among the Virginia pines and white oaks clinging to the side of the northward ridge, you may glimpse, across the park, across the farms and fields to the north, across the mindless suburban moonscape of highways and shopping centers, gated communities and soulless apartment complexes, the stoic, silent strength of the Washington Monument, its encircling flags rippling shadows across its marble and granite obelisk.

Viewing this archetypal architectural form — the sculpted echo of a pharaonic ego, still the world’s tallest stone structure and our central commemoration of a man who, if he had so desired, could have been a king — from within a thicket of hardwood forest, wind curling through bare limbs, is a wonderful collision of worlds; a purely American juxtaposition of the splendors of classical human civilization with the cellular, instinctive certainty of perpetual natural processes.

Unheard and unnoticed, bears snore contently in the caverns beneath our feet, the brittle death-rattle of withered oak leaves in the dry wind the only aural accompaniment to the dismal but somehow affirmative croak of the raven, whose shining lightless cruciform image is barely discernable in the glare when it glides across an empty Virginia sky.

Shenandoah National Park is notable for several reasons, most obviously because it contains the highest elevations eastward to the Atlantic, topped by Hawksbill Mountain at 4,049 feet. It includes 105 miles of Skyline Drive, with 75 stone-fenced scenic overlooks, all built by FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression, and its 516 miles of hiking trails include 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail. The park’s sweeping overlooks have long attracted those from city and countryside seeking to live their lives amid natural splendor.

The park is blessed with a cornucopia of native wildlife, with black bears and bobcats and many species of declining neotropical migratory birds such as warblers and vireos all benefitting from this sweeping intact forestland. Timber rattlers and copperheads keep your mind focused when on the trail, while the plentiful, gushing coldwater streams are populated by central Appalachian specialties such as the Potomac sculpin, the northern hog sucker and the American brook lamprey. Only an hour and a half from DC, Shenandoah National Park serves as a bastion and a refuge for those fleeing Northern Virginia’s tedious sprawl on sunny weekends.

The story of the park’s creation isn’t as pretty though. The mountaineers who were descended from early eighteenth-century settlers were removed, sometimes forcibly, from their landholdings by the federal government in the 1930s. In what the Washington City Paper has labeled an “Appalachian Trail of Tears,” federal agents justified their actions by referring to the generally poor farmers and loggers as “squatters,” due to the fact that many lacked legal documentation proving ownership of real property. “These mountains are made for a road,” President Hoover remarked on a visit, “and everybody ought to have a chance to get the views from here.” Everyone from DC, that is; for the displaced “hillbillies” there was nothing but compulsory relocation, lousy compensation, and an ingrained resentment that still animates their ancestors. Over one hundred cemeteries, their fading tombstones covered in ivy and dead leaves, are the only commemoration to the park’s original European inhabitants.

Shortly after the park’s establishment, the Civilian Conservation Corps — a federal program employing people for public works during the Depression — created the iconic Skyline Drive, 105 miles of winding road splicing the mountainous spine of the park that evokes current calls for a massive investment in American infrastructure. It’s doubtful that such an erosive and habitat-wrecking project would be considered in national parks today, but it must be said that the lovingly laid limestone walls that border the thoroughfare’s vertiginous edge as it twists through the mature forest are superbly designed and executed, and with time have assumed the austere, introspective patina of the rocky bluffs — remnants of an ancient sea — that they’re formed from.

Typically American, the park’s legacy is complex and multidimensional, pairing the crucial protection of wilderness, wildlife habitat and recreational values with an undeniably ugly and undemocratic genesis. Only recently has the true story of its founding been widely acknowledged; as with the country it so marvelously represents, Shenandoah National Park is a work in progress.

Aside from expanding landholdings, reintroducing extirpated species, and attending to some overdue internal infrastructure improvements, the main challenges for Shenandoah and its sister national parks for the next hundred years will inescapably be defensive in nature; it will be a struggle to retain these scattered gems of relatively natural landscape in a swelling sea of commercial and residential development that threatens some of the country’s finest remaining forestland, historic sites, and open spaces.

In a recent conversation with Jim Schaberl, division chief of natural and cultural resources at Shenandoah, we discussed what the park needs to prepare for in the near future. Climate change, that ineluctable, almost godlike threat to the world as we’ve known it, certainly plays center stage. Shenandoah is directly downwind from some of the country’s most antiquated and polluting coal-fired plants, mainly based in West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Virginia herself, and the poisonous aerial sludge that stems from burning fossil fuels at these antiquated plants has made Shenandoah’s air quality one of the most polluted of any national park in the entire country.

The struggle against the effects of greenhouse gases will, even barring immediate, universal access to some futuristic (though hardly impossible) emission-free method of energizing the world, accompany more mundane troubles equally demanding our attention. Among these more directly confrontational ills are the increasing problems associated with the introduction of exotic species such as oriental bittersweet vines, autumn (Russian) olive trees, the hemlock wooly adelgid (a parasitic insect), and feral hogs, among many other unwelcome newcomers. The sudden inclusion of nonnative plants and animals into native ecosystems has led to serious ecologic imbalances in the park’s, and the world’s, epochal order of evolutionary procession.

The park’s boundary stretches for 380 miles, almost all of it adjoining private property. While this is great for property owners since it increases their property values, it also reduces the park to a kind of unwilling sponge, soaking up the nonnative animals and plants that careless or simply unaware neighbors allow to drift into the park. Schaberl says that between 40 and 50 percent of the park has been colonized by exotic plants, including disconcertingly successful foreigners such as the mile-a-minute, a kudzu-like vine that can blanket a forest floor with alarming speed. Given our global economy and the shameful lack of regulation of the international pet trade we can only expect more exotic newcomers to regularly be discovered.

But the future of Shenandoah National Park won’t purely be one of bracing for climate change and anxiously awaiting the next unwanted nonnative plant or animal. There are plans afoot to “rewild” the park in a small way, by bringing back a native critter that had been hunted out of this region long ago. The fisher (Martes pennanti) is a midsized member of the mustelid or weasel family, about midway between their cousins the mink and the wolverine. The mustelids, which also includes badgers, weasels, ferrets and otters, are known for their tenacity, fearlessness and ingenuity. The reintroduction of the fisher to Shenandoah National Park will fill an ecological niche that’s currently vacant. The only extant native mammalian predators there now (excluding bats) being the mostly herbivorous black bear, the bobcat, red and gray foxes, otters, long-tailed and least weasels, minks and tiny shrews. Coyotes — the larger, Eastern variety, thought to be part gray wolf — are present as well but are considered to be exotics. The fisher’s comeback will fill a gap in the park’s predatory cycle, putting mid-sized prey species like rabbits and grouse on alert for the return of an old adversary.

Shenandoah National Park, like the George Washington National Forest on the other side of the Valley, functions as a “sky island,” a high-elevation habitat that hosts plant and animal species more commonly found in colder climes. In northerly areas where fishers are more common, they share their habitat with another midsized animal that is making a comeback to the area: the porcupine.

In 2014, an injured porcupine was reported by the side of the road in Frederick County, at the northern tip of the Shenandoah Valley. Incredulous wildlife rehabbers arrived to find, sure enough, a banged-up but still feisty porcupine, a species last seen in the area nearly a century ago. The animal was successfully rehabilitated and released into the wild where it likely joined an apparently growing population of porcupines. Sightings of the animal have been on the rise in Maryland and West Virginia.

Eventually a porcupine pair will make its way across the valley and into the park, where when reestablished they will join the 53 species of mammals, 26 species of reptiles, 24 amphibian species and over 200 bird species that call the park home. Birds found here include the magnificent peregrine falcon. The park, in fact, serves as a crucial location for the release of captive-reared (or “hacked”) falcons to the region. And these rare beauties don’t just stick around the park, either; peregrines have successfully raised young in downtown Richmond, eagerly feasting on the plentiful starlings, house sparrows and pigeons (all exotic to North America) amid the office buildings and highways of the capitol.

The park’s biologists aren’t giving up on the critically endangered Shenandoah salamander (Plethodon shenandoah), either. This fascinating little creature, black with a fiery orange stripe down its shiny back, exists nowhere in the world except within the park. A “lungless” salamander, breathing entirely through its skin, primarily nocturnal and found only within moist microhabitats in otherwise dry talus areas at the park’s highest altitudes, the Shenandoah salamander’s range continues to shrink as warming weather pushes its habitat to higher and higher elevations. There is only so high it can climb, of course.

One day, probably sooner rather than later, if we fail to confront the existential menace of climate change head-on, the last lingering member of this ancient animal will drift into eternity, perhaps facing northeast, with the glaring gleam of the Washington Monument the final vision in its dying eyes. There is still time for us to decide our mutual fate. If we can’t make a stand here, so proximate to the historical foundation of the United States and some vestige of the world we’ve inherited, where else can we?

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