Great Smoky Mountains Association commits to funding national park visitor centers during federal government shutdown

During the extended government shutdown in October 2013, the public’s access to Great Smoky Mountains National Park was nearly non-existent. This time, however, if a government shutdown goes into effect at midnight on December 21, Great Smoky Mountains Association is committed to creating a different reality for park visitors during the upcoming holiday week.

“We know many people plan a trip to the Smokies during the holidays. Businesses in the surrounding communities also depend on visitors to stay in their hotels and eat at their restaurants,” GSMA CEO Laurel Rematore said Friday afternoon, December 21. “We want to do what we can to ensure visitors have access to park information, and in the event of a shutdown we know we can do that by keeping the park's visitor centers open during this busy period.”

As the potential for a government shutdown began to appear on the horizon late last week, Rematore went to work with NPS officials to find a way to temporarily staff in-park visitor centers independent of federal funds, thus ensuring the Smokies would remain available to visitors who wish to connect with their public lands during this holiday season.

It has been determined that GSMA would cover costs associated with visitor center staffing, restroom cleaning and trash hauling should they be needed due to a shutdown. With these services in place, a visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park may not look and feel exactly as anticipated, but at least a minimum of visitor comforts and information would remain available at three park visitor centers: Sugarlands near Gatlinburg, Tenn., Cades Cove near Townsend, Tenn., and Oconaluftee near Cherokee, N.C.

Even so, visitors and community leaders should be aware that there’s a clock on GSMA’s funding; it would expire at sundown on Tuesday, January 1, 2019.

GSMA provides staffing for the park’s visitor center stores through an agreement with the National Park Service going back nearly 70 years. In fact, many of the thousands of visitors who come into contact with employees of the nonprofit cooperating association have at times mistaken them for park rangers.

GSMA employs roughly 85 people who accommodate visitor needs on a daily basis. They do so at all four visitor centers located inside the park boundary (those listed above and one at Clingmans Dome, which is open to the public April 1 through November 30) and three outside-the-park visitor centers in Gatlinburg, Tenn., Townsend, Tenn., and Bryson City, N.C. Visitor services at these three locations would not be impacted by a shutdown, Rematore said. “National parks across the country are the cornerstone of tourism economies, and the Smokies are no exception,” Rematore said.

“That’s why it makes sense to us as a good community partner to embrace our leadership role in this way and work toward supporting a healthy regional economy while simultaneously helping to preserve national park resources.”

Since its inception in 1953, Great Smoky Mountains Association has supported the preservation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park by promoting greater public understanding and appreciation through education, interpretation and research. A nonprofit organization, GSMA has provided more than $44 million to the park during its nearly 70-year history. Support for the association is achieved primarily from sales of educational publications and from annual membership dues.

National and Regional Coverage of GSMA’s Funding Effort

Cades Cove Visitor Center is located half way around Loop Road near the Townsend, Tenn., entrance to GSMNP.

Oconaluftee Visitor Center is located two miles inside the national park boundary near Cherokee, N.C.

Sugarlands Visitor Center is located two miles inside the national park boundary, near Gatlinburg, Tenn.