TOWNSEND, Tenn. — Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) is again sponsoring the Restore Our Parks Act, a plan with broad bipartisan support that will help pay for a long list of overdue repairs in the national parks.
The White House also expressed support for the plan when it was proposed last year. A nearly identical bill in the U.S. House also has wide bipartisan approval, but Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tennessee 2nd District) has not committed to supporting the bill.
"On the surface, it looks like something I could support. There's a huge need [for maintenance], absolutely," said Burchett. "I think this will probably pass with or without me. My only concern is where is the money coming from."
Sen. Alexander's proposal says $6 billion will be generated over five years by money from energy companies that drill and mine on federal land. The act would cut the maintenance backlog in half. Years of putting off projects due to a lack of funding has added up to a $12 billion to-do list for the National Park Service. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has more than $151 million of deferred maintenance projects.
Ian Rutter and his wife own R&R Fly Fishing and have guided fishing trips in the Smokies since 2003. He says the impact of the backlog is visible to customers.
"We see a lot of restrooms that are out of order," said Ian Rutter. "It's not the national park experience that people have come for in the Smokies. It gets to the point that it has to be a crisis situation before it gets repaired."
The Rutters took Burchett on a tour of Metcalf Bottoms, one of the sites in the Smokies where bathrooms are closed for maintenance. They also took the Congressman into the stream for a bit of fly fishing and conversation, hoping to reel in some support for the Restore Our Parks Act.
"I'd really like to see Congressman Burchett take a lead in the Restore Our Parks Act," said Rutter. "A good visitor experience in the Smokies is really just good business here in Blount County. It really is our livelihood. Things like bathrooms may not be sexy projects to fund, but they are an absolute necessity and a sanitation issue."
Burchett said he has no idea if or when there will be an actual vote on the Restore Our Parks Act. He said he can likely support the plan if it does not become convoluted or tied with other unrelated projects.
"I would want to make sure it was written appropriately. Every time they pass meaningful legislation, they always tack a bunch of garbage onto it. They need to keep it clean. They need to make it specifically about funding our parks because of the incredible backlog of repairs that are needed," said Burchett.