The Knoxville News Sentinel: Thanks to Sen. Lamar Alexander for fighting for Smokies funding

Posted on August 9, 2018

The Knoxville News Sentinel: Thanks to Sen. Lamar Alexander for fighting for Smokies funding

By Vesna Plekanis

August 9, 2018

https://www.knoxnews.com/story/opinion/columnists/2018/08/09/thanks-sen-lamar-alexander-fighting-smokies-funding-opinion/884233002/

 

Tennessee’s 12 national park sites highlight the state’s natural and historic significance. For those of us in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, the parks are also our economic lifeblood. 

But the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, like all of our national parks, suffers from a backlog of needed repairs – from trails and bridges to restrooms and picnic sites. Funding issues in Congress are responsible.

Thankfully, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has worked along bipartisan lines to fight for Tennesseans and our economy by advancing a bill that would stabilize funding for all of our national parks. We owe him our heartfelt gratitude.

As the owner of a hiking company in the Smokies, we have grown in the past 20 years from a mom-and-pop operation to employing almost two dozen guides and support staff. Our guides are continuously frustrated by the amount of trash found on the more popular trails, the deteriorating roads, the washed-out and sometimes dangerous trails, and the lack of working bathroom facilities.

This is not just a poor way to maintain these treasures that are beloved by the families that come to visit. It is bad for Tennessee’s businesses and the state’s overall economy.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park generated $1.23 billion in economic output during 2017 and was the most toured park in the United States, with more than 11 million visitors. The park added 13,942 jobs to the local economy as well. An accessible, functioning park is critical to our region – and especially to our communities that rely on tourism to thrive.

The outdoor industry as a whole has a bigger gross domestic product than the auto and pharmaceutical industries combined. To sustain our industry's growth, our national parks and wild lands need the support of federal, state and local governments.

That is why we at A Walk in the Woods are excited about the bill that Alexander has helped sponsor. His unflagging support of our area and of conservation in Tennessee is a hallmark of his life in public service.

The Smokies are just part of the problem. Across the National Park System, there is an $11.6 billion backlog in maintenance that has been deferred year after year. Aging facilities, increased visitation and inconsistent federal funding all have contributed to this backlog.

Alexander, along with Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Marker Warner (D-Va.) and Angus King (I-Maine), has introduced the Restore Our Parks Act. The bill would provide reliable funding for deferred maintenance by establishing a dedicated fund where royalties from federal onshore, offshore and renewable energy revenues would be deposited. The fund could receive up to $1.3 billion a year for five years and would help the National Park Service fix buildings, roads, trails and other critical national park infrastructure. The bipartisan bill also has the endorsement of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

This legislation also would stimulate jobs when work begins to repair the infrastructure of Tennessee’s national parks. A report funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that up to 2,572 jobs could be created or supported in Tennessee through investment in deferred maintenance.

I hope those in our communities who rely on the Smokies for their livelihood will join me in thanking Alexander for fighting for conservation and Tennessee’s outdoor ideals. He believes in the long-term preservation of Tennessee’s culture, and conservation has become a part of his growing legacy. 

Vesna Plekanis and her husband, Erik, own A Walk in the Woods, a nature guide company in Gatlinburg.