President's Initiative Surpasses Requests

Op-Ed on the National Parks Centennial Initiative

Posted on February 14, 2007

I used to imagine that if I were President I would tell the budget director to give national parks all the money they need. It looks like President Bush has done just that. This is great news for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Tennessee’s nine other national park units including Natchez Trace Parkway, Shiloh Battlefield and the Big South Fork Recreation Area. To celebrate the 100th year of the National Park system in 2016, his bold and creative Centennial Initiative would over ten years: • add $100 million a year for base operating funds and • add up to $100 million a year in government matching funds to attract another $100 million from the private sector. For the Great Smokies this means almost two million new dollars next year, a 12 percent increase. The Smokies need the help. Nearly ten million people visited the Smokies last year, more than three times the number that visited Yellowstone. To handle the pressure, 2,000 volunteers worked 115,000 hours restoring trails and operating visitors’ centers. The Friends of the Smokies and Great Smoky Mountains Association contributed $3 million. This volunteer tradition is not new. In the 1920’s Governor Austin Peay carried Tennessee legislators twice by train to Knoxville to persuade them to appropriate $2 million to help buy 500,000 acres that include the largest mountains in the eastern United States and one of the most biologically diverse areas of the world. North Carolina did the same. Citizens contributed another $1 million. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. matched that $5 million. So in 1934, for $10 an acre, the Smokies became the only national park donated to the country. We’re lucky we got it when we did since land adjacent to the Smokies in Blount County where I grew up hiking sells for $20,000 an acre or even more today. The President’s proposal exceeds what park groups had requested. And this is not his only recent decision that helps the Smokies. New clean air rules reduce sulfur pollution that causes asthma and interferes with visibility. Mercury is being regulated for the first time. The last Congress provided bigger tax deductions for conservation easements. There is more to do. With Democratic Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware I am introducing clean air and climate change legislation to put new clean air rules into law, to strengthen the mercury rule and to put carbon caps on emissions from coal fired power plants. Italy has its art, Egypt has the pyramids, and the United States has The Great American Outdoors. And many national parks—like Shiloh—are historic as well as scenic. To help our children understand that national parks are part of our national character I have this suggestion. In 2003 Congress approved my legislation to create summer “Presidential academies” for outstanding teachers and students of American history. Why not have 100 of these academies each summer at one of the 390 national park properties? Can you imagine a better lesson about what it means to be an American than, for example, a week with David McCullough at the John Adams house in Massachusetts? Lamar Alexander is Tennessee’s senior senator and a member of the Interior Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over national parks.