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.
Part of the reason the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) has come this far is because of activism from organizations like the Public Lands Alliance. PLA connects, strengthens, and represents the nonprofit partners of America's public lands—partners like Great Smoky Mountains Association. These nonprofit organizations build and maintain trails, publish and sell educational products, conduct informative and interpretive tours, teach environmental science to youth, manage volunteers, fundraise, and much more. Without them, parks couldn’t thrive.
“Every one of these partners need safe, accessible facilities to create and deliver these programs to visitors,” said Dan Puskar, President and CEO of the Public Lands Alliance.
“Every one of these partners cares about reducing the number of in-holdings in their national parks and delivering outdoor opportunities to people across the nation. The GAOA is therefore perfectly aligned with the operations and aspirations of nonprofit public lands partners.”
To understand the role of nonprofit park partners, take a look at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is supported by a strong group of partners that includes GSMA, Friends of the Smokies, Discover Life in America and the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. All of these partners contribute greatly to the park’s operations and stand to also benefit from the GAOA.
“The Great American Outdoors Act is a bold response to the very long-term problem of deferred maintenance,” said Laurel Rematore, GSMA’s CEO. “Our park’s backlog of maintenance projects currently exceeds $200 million, which is among the largest of the backlogs in the 419-unit National Park System.”
Rematore said the challenge for crown jewel parks like the Smokies will be for the National Park Service to put these funds to work quickly and to show measurable positive impacts to Congress and the American people.
“The National Park Service must apply these funds within its framework of planning, design, environmental and historic preservation compliance, contracting, and projects oversight, while continuing to provide annual operational services to this park’s 12.5 million visitors,” she said. “We expect there will be intense pressure on the Smokies staff to lead the National Park System in retiring its maintenance backlog within the next decade.”
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 Dawn Roark.
Aerial photo of Foothills Parkway by Rich Smith