GATLINBURG, TN – President Donald Trump recently signed legislation providing much needed funding for deferred maintenance projects on federal lands. The Great American Outdoors Act, co-sponsored by retiring Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), is a major win for Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the largest national park in America that does not charge an entrance fee. By comparison, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon National Parks charge up to $35 per car, $30 per motorcycle, and $20 for pedestrians and bicyclists.
When Tennessee and North Carolina deeded the land for the park to the federal government back in the 1930’s, both states’ legislatures stipulated that fees could never be charged to anyone passing through the park. The road crossing the Smokies was a critical trade route that benefitted the economies of both states and a fee would make trade more difficult.
Without the ability to charge entrance fees, the National Park Service has relied on a small amount of public funding and the generosity of private foundations to pay for ongoing maintenance.
Maintenance costs have risen over the years and administrators at the park were forced to defer projects due to a lack of funding.
As an example, the visitor centers are in need of updating and expansion. More than 12.5 million guests visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2019, more than any other park in the National Park Service system by double.
However, Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg cannot handle the number of people coming in for information or to visit a restroom. Some of the newly allocated funding may provide for a new visitor center in the near future.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park personnel and volunteers maintain 384 miles of roads, 850 miles of hiking trails, 10 campgrounds with 1,000 sites, 100 backcountry campsites and shelters, 11 picnic areas, and 342 structures including 97 historical structures.
With an annual budget of just over $18 million, it has one of the smallest budgets within the National Park Service. This is largely due to the fact that they cannot charge entrance fees.
In comparison, Yellowstone National Park, with 4 million guests in 2019, had a budget of nearly $75 million. As you can see, entrance fees make a huge difference in the budget.
Money allocated by the Great American Outdoors Act will help Great Smoky Mountains National Park catch up with much needed repairs.
The legislation provides up to $6.65 billion for priority repairs in parks and up to $3 billion for the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife, and other agencies. Earnings from energy developments on federal lands and waters will pay for the projects instead of taxes. Marcia August with Pew Charitable Trusts told Fox News that no taxpayer dollars will be used to pay for these expenses.