Legislation to fund $200M backlog at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Guests visit Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (stock photo)

Guests visit Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (stock photo)

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“There is nothing so American as our national parks … The fundamental idea behind the parks … is that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us,” – President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Stop me if you heard this one before, the United States Congress hasn’t been doing its job.

Yeah. I’m sure you’re as shocked as I am.

For years, necessary maintenance projects in National Parks across the nation have gone underfunded.

If we’re going to be completely fair, creating a national budget must be a nightmare in the best of times. Over the last couple of decades, I would think sitting down and negotiating the finer points of the US budget was something akin to one of Dante’s circles of hell.

So maybe it’s understandable that something as mundane as national park maintenance projects took a back seat to urgent pieces of legislation and the billions in pork-barrel spending required to get anything at all done in Washington.

So – as shocking as it is to say in these times – our congressional leaders deserve credit for recognizing the crisis-level issues in our national parks and endeavoring to do something about it.

In June, the Senate passed the Great American Outdoors Act, 73-25 and now, that legislation is going to the house for approval.

“The Great American Outdoors Act is historic legislation that would significantly reduce the National Park Service maintenance backlog,” said Jeff Hunter, Senior Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “In addition, the bill permanently reauthorizes and fully funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million annually. That is huge! If Congress passes this bill into law, it will be a victory for everyone who loves parks.”

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park alone has a backlog of maintenance projects that exceeds $200 million, ranking it among the largest backlogs in the park system.

Read More: Why the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is free and others are not

Cassius Cash, Superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, told the Asheville Citizen Times that “While our staff takes great pride in doing the best with what we have to take care of all the historic structures in the park and the infrastructure of roads, trails, and facilities that enable visitors to experience the Smokies, we simply do not have enough staff and funding to maintain it all in good condition. This is especially true in these times of record numbers of park visitors using roads and facilities that were never designed to support so many people.”

Park roads and bridges are collapsing, water systems are failing, and visitor centers are crumbling at National Parks around the US (photo taken in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park)
Park roads and bridges are collapsing, water systems are failing, and visitor centers are crumbling at National Parks around the US (photo taken in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park)

Stephanie Adams, of the National Parks Conservation Association, outlined the size of the problem in an op-ed for the Mountain Journal, a non-profit publication based in Yellowstone

“For far too long, the National Park Service has operated on a shoestring budget and in recent years dealt with decreases in staffing on top of record-setting visitation. At the same time, the Park System’s maintenance backlog has steadily increased to an all-time high of more than $12 billion in needed repairs to crumbling roads, trails, staff housing, restrooms, visitor centers and other infrastructure,” she wrote.

“Park roads and bridges are collapsing, water systems are failing, and visitor centers are crumbling,” said Theresa Pierno, president and CEO for National Parks Conservation Association. “This momentous bill not only provides an opportunity to better care for these treasured places, it will help to increase access to public lands across the country, provide jobs and bring much-needed relief to local communities suffering through hard times.”

Read More: The controversy of Clingmans Dome, the observation tower that weathered the media storm

The funding comes from billions in oil and gas exploration fees through the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

According to an article published in USA Today, those funds, which can be as much as $1.9 billion a year were always intended to cover various projects but frequently gets rerouted to other government priorities. The Senate version of the bill would require half of those revenues be spent on park maintenance over the next five years.

“This isn’t a bill that just benefits the East or the West, a bill that just benefits the coastal states or the interior states,” said Colorado GOP Sen. Cory Gardner, the bill’s lead sponsor. “The entire country, from Hawaii to Alaska (and) from Florida to Maine, everywhere in between, benefits from the Great American Outdoors Act.”

USA Today reported West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who helped craft the measure, called it “one of the most important things we’ve done in the conservation world in the last 50 years. So we’re very proud of that.”

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