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Future of Funding for Great Smoky Mountains at Stake Today

According to the National Park Service, almost 6 million people have visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park so far this year. (River Sports Outfitters)
According to the National Park Service, almost 6 million people have visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park so far this year. (River Sports Outfitters)
July 11, 2018

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Great Smoky Mountains National Park faces a maintenance backlog of $215 million, but the country's most-visited park could be one step closer to relief.

A U.S. Senate subcommittee today was to take up the Restore Our Parks Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. The bill would use funds the government already receives from onshore and offshore drilling to fund national park maintenance.

Ed McAlister, who owns River Sports Outfitters in Knoxville, said the legislation could come just in time for the state's outdoor-recreation industry.

"When you get into the inner structure of the parks, you will see things that need fixing," he said. "They're all strapped. There's a lot of money flowing around various things, but it's not being obtained to be used in our parks around here."

Nationwide, there's close to a $12 billion backlog of maintenance to be done. The most recent version of this bill is funded with revenue now in the General Treasury Fund, and would not exceed $1.3 billion annually, but fans of the parks say it's a start.

Vesna Plakanis, who owns A Walk in the Woods, organizing backcountry trips into the Smokies, said the bottom line, for her business and others, relies on protecting a priceless commodity – the health of the outdoors.

"If the resources aren't taken care of, if the water quality has run off, all of those things impact us financially," she said, "and the outdoor industry is as big as the auto industry and the pharmaceutical industry combined."

For the second year in a row, visits to Great Smoky Mountains National Park broke records. Visitation stood at 11.3 million last year, an increase of more than a million from 2000. The Pew Charitable Trusts' "Restore America's Parks" campaign is advocating for the legislation, and Rebecca Knuffke with the campaign said the money is needed to keep up with record crowds.

"We're on year number three of record visitation numbers in the national parks," she said, "and that takes its toll on parks, particularly when they've been insufficiently funded for so many years."

The bipartisan bill has support from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and conservation groups.

The text of the Restore Our Parks Act is online at scribd.com.

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Support for this reporting was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Stephanie Carson, Public News Service - TN