By Frances Figart, Creative Services Director
On June 17, the Senate voted overwhelmingly (73-25) to pass the Great American Outdoors Act, and on July 23 it passed the House of Representatives (310-107). It now heads to the White House, where President Trump is expected to sign the bill into law.
“The Great American Outdoors Act is historic legislation that would significantly reduce the National Park Service maintenance backlog,” said Jeff Hunter, Senior Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “In addition, the bill permanently reauthorizes and fully funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million annually. That is huge! If Congress passes this bill into law, it will be a victory for everyone who loves parks.”
The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) works to protect and enhance America’s national parks for present and future generations. For years, the organization has been working to obtain much-needed funding to fix national parks’ trails, service roads, and other critical park infrastructure. Locally, NPCA works with the land trust community to secure protection for lands adjacent to national parks. This includes obtaining wildlife corridors and other important conservation lands from willing sellers. The Land and Water Conservation Fund is key to making this possible.
The Smokies aren’t the only park in the area facing mounting costs. Historic buildings, campgrounds, trails, and water systems along the Blue Ridge Parkway are also in disrepair. In fiscal year 2018, the Blue Ridge Parkway’s backlog exceeded $500 million, but the park received only $15-20 million per year for maintenance work.
With the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA), people in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina who love the Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests can celebrate because there will be deferred maintenance funds available to the U.S. Forest Service. So can cities like Asheville and Knoxville, and every other town in between, that could apply for Land and Water Conservation Fund support to expand a ball field or create a new city park.
Hunter emphasized that these funds are critically needed. “Without passage of the GAOA, the visitor experience will continue to be diminished because of aging infrastructure and substandard facilities,” he said. “The GAOA will bring our national parks into the 21st century while creating jobs and supporting gateway communities that rely on park visitors.”
Jamie Ballinger, chair of GSMA’s government relations committee, reminds us that “when legislation is pending, calls to your elected officials are an effective way to support the Smokies. Legislators take the opinions of their constituents seriously and the number of calls or lack thereof can be important in a legislator’s decision making.”
The bill has passed the Senate and is headed for the House for a vote. If you’re a hiker, a cyclist, a birder, a wildlife watcher, or like to fish, now is the time to speak up for our parks. Please contact your Representative and tell them to take a stand for the parks in your backyard, and vote “yea” for the Great American Outdoors Act.
The current Sugarlands Visitor Center was built in the Mission 66 era at a time when park visitation was between five and six million people. The facility does not offer enough space to adequately provide opportunities for people to receive information for trip planning and to learn about park resources. A new visitor center is estimated to cost approximately $25 million and would be designed to serve visitors into the next century. Photo by Valerie Polk
Aerial photo of Foothills Parkway by Rich Smith