Great Smoky Mountains National Park is reopening Wednesday morning through the weekend despite the federal government’s partial shutdown.
Noting that “for the Smokies and the people around it, the month of October is the most important time of the year,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam announced late Tuesday afternoon that “America’s most visited national park” will stay open at least through midnight Sunday, Oct. 20.
Last week the federal government agreed to let national parks reopen if individual states agreed to pay for their daily operation. Parks in Utah, Colorado, New York, South Dakota and Arizona had reopened as of Tuesday.
After the federal offer, Tennessee and the National Park Service needed to hammer out details – like how much of the park will be opened, who is responsible for what in the park – before the state agreed to pay the $60,000 a day the feds say it cost to run it, Haslam told reporters earlier Tuesday.
Haslam said the State of Tennessee will pay 80 percent in the form of a $240,400 tourism grant to Sevier County with Sevier and Blount counties funding the remaining $60,100 to fully fund operation of the park for five days. In all, $300,500 was sent to NPS to open the park for five days.
If congress can resolve its impasse before Sunday, NPS will refund any money to the state.
“According to the agreement, if the shutdown ends before the money is spent, NPS will refund to the state the unspent balance of the state-donated funds,” said Dave Smith, spokesman for the governor’s office. *
State Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, is pleased the park will reopen to tourists. The park has been closed to visitors since Oct. 1, which has “had a terrible impact on the park and surrounding communities,” Overbey said.
Overbey said many East Tennessee communities, as well as the state government revenues, have been impacted by the closure of the park with the state losing $300,000 a day in revenue.
“This is (typically) the second highest month for sales tax receipts in the state next to July,” he said, adding the state’s investment in the park will garner high returns in sales tax receipts.
Overbey said he has heard many anecdotes from families who decided against a trip to East Tennessee because the park is closed. “People come to go to the park,” he said. “We have other things to do – lakes, golf courses, attractions – but people want to come to go to the park, especially to see the fall colors and drive through the mountains.”
The federal shutdown has closed national parks across the state, but the Smoky Mountains presents a unique situation because it’s the most visited park in the country, state Sen. Frank Niceley said.
Niceley, a Republican from Strawberry Plains, is also suggesting now is a good time to start talking about Tennessee taking over operation of the park full time. “We need to tell the federal government, ‘If you can’t run it, then we will take it back’,” he said.
The park was created in 1934 and paid for by both federal, state and private funds. Niceley said the people of Tennessee ought to rescind their donation.
“The federal government is out of control with all its borrowing and spending. We need to take it back and run it ourselves,” Niceley said.
An NPS report found that the 9.6 million visitors to GSMNP during 2012 had an economic impact of $818 million in communities surrounding the park in Tennessee and North Carolina.
* Update to original article.