This is typically a busy time of year at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as numerous visitors from across the nation make their way to the mountains to get an up-close look at the vibrant fall hues that come with the changing of the season, participate in the camping, horseback riding and rafting offered there or take in a scenic drive or hike through the country’s most-visited national park.
However, like other national parks throughout the U.S., the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has remained gated since early October. The closure of the country’s national parks was the result of the shutdown of the federal government, which is now entering its third week.
Some states have since taken it upon themselves to see that national parks located within their boundaries remain open, at least temporarily, during the shutdown. Last week, officials entered a deal with the Department of the Interior to temporarily open its national parks by paying more than $1.6 million. Other states to undertake similar efforts include South Dakota, which has made a deal that will keep the Mount Rushmore National Memorial open temporarily; New York, which struck a deal to keep the Statue of Liberty National Monument open; and Arizona, which is home to the Grand Canyon National Park.
Now, legislation has been introduced that would reimburse states using state resources to reopen their national parks open during the shutdown.
U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-1st, has signed on as an original co-sponsor of House Bill 3286, also being referred to as the Protecting States, Opening National Parks Act. He said the effects have specifically hit the areas around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park hard.
“This is huge for Sevierville,” Roe said. “This is an area that produces huge amounts of revenue for the state.”
He said he’s one of many to frequent the area and spend money there, and the park usually expects to have 1.1 million visitors in October alone.
“This important legislation would ensure states that move forward with reopening their National Parks are reimbursed when the federal government reopens,” Roe said in a statement issued Monday. “This is especially important to states like Tennessee, where Gov. Haslam must balance the budget. The Smokies are a beautiful part of the great state of Tennessee and have a huge economic impact on East Tennessee, especially during the fall months. I am proud to join my colleagues in supporting this bill and I hope it will help reopen the gates to the parks across the country.”
On Monday, Haslam told the Associated Press that it would cost $60,000 per day to keep the park open and a deal would come too late for the state to send money to the federal government. But Roe is hopeful that the national park gets opened, and with bipartisan support, which he’s seen in the past on bills like these.
Roe said the money is sitting there, already budgeted for, just waiting to be appropriated for the matter.
“We just need to use it,” Roe said.
The bipartisan bill was introduced by U.S. Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) on Friday. Through the bill, states would be reimbursed within 90 days for all state funds spent toward national park operations during the federal government shutdown.
“Our National Parks not only represent an important part of this country’s heritage — they are important drivers of many state economies,” Daines said in a statement. “While I’m pleased that the Obama administration has finally relented and allowed individual states to get our National Parks open again, it’s unacceptable that a state like Montana could be forced to bear even more of a financial burden because of Washington’s failures. My legislation will protect states and ensure they receive full compensation for their work to reopen our National Park gates.”
One issue Roe would face in opening the Great Smoky Mountains National Park would be that part of the park that goes into North Carolina. A national park can’t be partially open, so it would be required that a similar deal be reached there.
“It’s an issue, but both sides of the mountains are eager to get it done,” Roe said.
He’s not sure where the bill currently is, but said he has enough sponsors and support to get the park open very soon.
Press staff writer Tony Casey contributed to this article.