Three visitor centers that were kept open in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park during the government shutdown are now closed.
The non-profit Great Smoky Mountains Association (GSMA) paid more than $50,000 to operate the Sugarlands, Oconaluftee, and Cades Cove visitor centers during the busy holidays, but that funding only lasted through New Year's Day.
For the remainder the government shutdown, there will be no more open bathrooms or garbage collection anywhere in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Laurel Rematore, CEO of the Great Smoky Mountains Association, said paying to keep the visitor centers open prevented problems with overflowing trash reported at many other national parks during the shutdown.
"I'm really concerned about sanitation issues and protecting our wildlife. People need to know that the restrooms inside the park are not open and the trash cans are not being serviced. Within a few days, probably, the trash cans will be overflowing and attracting wildlife who become habituated to human food, and then that's a bad thing for the wildlife," said Rematore.
The GSMA says it will still operate at its visitor centers located outside the national park in Gatlinburg, Townsend, and Bryson City. Visitors to the Smokies can still stop there to get information on the national park, use bathrooms, and dispose of trash.
The GSMA could afford to keep the visitor centers open during the busy week between Christmas and New Year's because it makes enough on gift shop sales to break even. That's not the case when crowds and customers drop off dramatically after New Year's Day.
Just because the GSMA was able to break even does not mean the last week has been painless. The more than $50,000 it spent to operate bathrooms, trash collection, and visitor centers is money it can normally devote to the non-profit's actual mission of providing education and helping fund projects in the Smokies.
"It was a privilege for GSMA to step in and help during this critical time, but it is really just a stop-gap measure. Every day that this shutdown drags on, it ultimately could be damaging the resources here in this park. This is also an important time of year when the employees at the park are usually planning projects, hiring staff, and doing all the things needed to care for the Great Smoky Mountains," said Rematore.
The main roads and trails in the park are still accessible and a skeleton crew of essential personnel is still working, including rangers for law enforcement.
The park will also maintain snow removal teams to keep Newfound Gap Road, the Spur between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, and the road to the Top of the World community open.