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Smokies could remain open if government shuts down

As a potential government shutdown looms, there are signs the Great Smoky Mountains National Park may remain open without being staffed.

Officials in the Great Smoky Mountains and surrounding counties are no strangers to government shutdowns.

The federal government has closed three times since 1995. There were two shutdowns within a few months during the Clinton administration. The first was in November 1995. A month later, the government closed from Dec. 16, 1995 through Jan. 6, 1996.

The most recent shutdown in October 2013 came during the peak fall colors when millions of visitors come to the area.

Each time the government closes, it forces officials in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) to lock the gates and turn away tourists.

Light winter traffic in front of park headquarters in the Great Smoky Mountains.

If Congress is unable to agree on a budget stop-gap by the Friday midnight deadline, there's a chance the Great Smoky Mountains may not close its gates.

Spokespeople with the GSMNP did not have any comment on the potential impact of a shutdown. However, they indicated they have not received any guidance from the higher-ups in the Department of the Interior on how to implement a closure. That could be a sign the leadership expects lawmakers to work something out before the deadline at midnight Friday.

In September 2017 when there was potential for a shutdown, the Department of the Interior laid out some contingency plans. The documents on the DOI.gov website outline a plan that would potentially leave open-air portions of the national parks open to the public, but without being staffed.

Park Ranger vehicles in the Great Smoky Mountains in January 2018.

In the Great Smoky Mountains, that could mean places such as the Sugarlands Visitor Center, park headquarters, and other buildings would be closed and locked while leaving the gates to the main roads open through the park.

Letting people into the park would likely depend on weather conditions at the time of a shutdown. As of Thursday afternoon, many roads are closed due to snow and ice.

Even if the park's gates remain open during a shutdown, there are many questions about staffing. It is unclear what agencies would be available to respond during an emergency.

As for the areas around the Smokies that rely on the national park for tourism, this would be a relatively less-damaging time of year for a shutdown to occur.

Snowy stream in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

"This time of year, January or early-February, will not impact that much," said Ken Maples, a city commissioner in Pigeon Forge who also manages a hotel and promotes tourism in Sevier County. "Valentine's Day is the next big weekend for our area with lodging and restaurants."

Maples said he hopes the whole conversation is rendered moot by lawmakers who find a way to keep the government and the national parks open for business.

"The worst times of year for this to happen would be July or October. Even though it would not be as bad now, a government shutdown does nothing to help businesses," said Maples.