GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) — The U.S. Senate passed legislation Wednesday that would spend nearly $3 billion on conservation projects, outdoor recreation and maintenance of national parks and other public lands.
The bill was co-sponsored by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee).
“Today, too many of our national parks are in bad shape, and American families visiting those parks are often shocked to find that so many of the roads, picnic areas, trails, campgrounds and visitor centers are in such bad condition or even closed. This bipartisan bill will cut in half the $12 billion maintenance backlog in our national parks, including $224 million in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It will also reduce maintenance backlogs at our national forests and refuges,” Alexander said in a statement.
Dana Soehn, spokesperson for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said the park received about $19 million a year from the federal government for every day operations, including maintenance.
For larger maintenance projects, GSMNP has to bid against the other 418 national parks for funding.
“We’re always competing for those funds to help us take care of those major needs, and generally there’s just not enough to go around. So each year, we miss a cycle of maintenance needs that should’ve been taken care of,” Soehn said.
With more than $200 million of maintenance backlog, Soehn said 80% of that is deteriorating roadways.
She said there was 384 miles of roadways at GSMNP, with about 6,000 visitors driving them every day.
The other large portion of the maintenance backlog is water and waste treatment infrastructures, which Soehn said were built in the 1960s.
She said there were 27 waste water treatment systems across the park, and all of them need repairs.
“Chimney’s picnic area. If you’re a visitor that comes there a lot, you know that a couple of times a year, we have to put out hand washing stations and porta-potties because we just can’t continue to meet that need,” Soehn said.
She said that the park needs a lot of larger renovations as well.
The Sugarlands Visitor Center was built for a capacity of around eight or nine million visitors, not the 12.5 million visitors the Smokies sees now.
Soehn said the Great American Outdoors Act would truly help the park make some needed repairs, even on the nature trails.
“There’s always an on-going need to take care of that trail system. It’s really important with over 100 back-country campsites for people to enjoy and be able access, you know, 500,000 acres of wilderness,” Soehn said.