TN ponders paying to reopen Great Smoky Mountains

Politicians in Tennessee concerned about the shutdown of the Great Smoky Mountains focused a lot of their attention Friday on Utah. That state struck a deal to reopen its national parks by agreeing to cover the cost of paying furloughed federal workers. Utah wired the federal government more than $1.6 million to seal the deal and get Park Rangers back on the job.

Governor Bill Haslam and Tennessee representatives in Congress held discussions Friday to examine the potential for opening the gates at the Great Smoky Mountains and other national parks in the Volunteer State. The issue is a bit more complicated for Tennessee because its national parks extend into other states. The federal government has also indicated states can make all-or-nothing deals to reopen an entire park. It will not agree to let states only open a portion of a park.

"We're actually dealing with two states. We're dealing with Tennessee and North Carolina," said Larry Waters, Sevier County Mayor. "I think just the logistics of trying to get both states to work together may be a challenge but I think we can work through that."

On Friday, Senator Lamar Alexander compared the economic impact of closing the Great Smoky Mountains to the "BP oil spill for the Gulf."

"This is the prime tourist season for the Smokies, when many of the small businesses around the park make most of their money," said Alexander.

Waters said he has been in communication throughout Friday with Haslam and other state economic leaders about discussions to open the Great Smoky Mountains. Waters did not have exact figures for how much it would cost to reopen the GSMNP, but said he heard one rough estimate based on total annual payroll come to around $50,000 per day.

"I know that I'm hopeful that by all of us working together, sometime next week we can get the park back open," said Waters.

10News contacted the office of North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory on Friday. His media relations workers were unaware of any discussions regarding the possibility of spending state dollars to reopen the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The shutdown is hitting the Great Smoky Mountains especially hard. The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees released figures that said the first 10 days of the shutdown has cost Smokies more than $23 million. That is at least double the estimated impact of any other national park, with the Grand Canyon coming in second at more than $11 million.

On Friday an economist at Western Carolina University released figures that estimate the shutdown of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has already cost the region $33 million in lost tourism dollars.

"As this thing drags on it becomes more and more a negative impact. Talking with some of our local businesses we're getting some cancelations because of the closing of the park," said Waters.

If anyone knows about the shutdowns and the National Parks, it is Bob Miller. He recently retired from the National Park Service after a career that spanned 38 years and served as the spokesperson for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for more than 20 years. Miller says the timing of the current shutdown is particularly cruel to the Smokies.

"The timing of the current shutdown for the Great Smoky Mountains, it could not be worse. You couldn't pick a worse time to close this place down than the month of October. We normally get 1.1 million visitors in October with the peak fall colors. The other shutdown that lasted any length of time happened in December when there are not nearly as many visitors," said Miller.

Miller said October is one of the rare months when campgrounds are so full that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park actually makes a profit on campers.

"Campgrounds themselves do not normally make money. They cost a lot more to operate and maintain than they generate in revenue. But they do attract people who spend money at the Sugarlands Visitor Center and the gift shops that fund the park and local organizations. The Great Smoky Mountains Association is losing $35,000 a day in the month of October. This is also the time of year when we get the most money in the donation boxes at Cades Cove and other places in the Park."

Miller said he went through four shutdowns as an employee at the National Park Service. However, the latest shutdown has also directly affected him.

"I was on vacation down at Gulf Islands National Seashore when we got word from the Park Rangers on October 1 that we had 48 hours to leave. So the current shutdown has still affected me. It has also affected my family because my daughter works at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park."

Miller said the exact economic impact may be debated, but the biggest loss comes in areas that cannot be quantified in dollar figures.

"I think the biggest concern is loss of enjoyment, loss of education, and loss of use of the area," said Miller.


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