Anyone who knows me knows I am an avid hiker who loves being outside and enjoying God’s creation. Last year, on a trip to Yellowstone National Park, I was dismayed by the state of disrepair in some areas of the park. One trail in particular was in such bad shape that parts of it were literally falling to pieces, and I was worried the disrepair could injure someone.
And it’s not just Yellowstone – too many of our nation’s most prominent parks simply don’t have the resources to maintain – or, better yet, improve – their infrastructure.
As more and more people visit our national parks and facilities grow older, our national parks will require maintenance and repairs. Unfortunately, national parks across the country have been deferring maintenance projects for years, which has created an immense backlog of projects that totaled $11.9 billion at the end of Fiscal Year 2018.
We can see the effects of this backlog in our own community. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most-visited national park in the country, with over 12.5 million people visiting the park last year. The park currently faces a backlog of $235 million in projects, while its operating budget is just over $20 million.
This is a serious problem. The Smokies are one of the largest drivers of tourism in East Tennessee. Like everyone in our area, I love the Smokies and believe we owe it to this beautiful park to make sure it is well-maintained. National parks have been called America’s best idea, and every year they attract millions of American and foreign visitors.
To begin rebuilding our parks and to ensure they have sustainable revenue, the Trump administration put forward what I thought was one of the best ideas I’ve heard in years: to dedicate a portion of the revenue our country receives from energy production on public land towards a National Parks and Public Lands Restoration Fund. That’s why I’m an original cosponsor of the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act, which Senator Alexander championed in the Senate.
On Wednesday, July 22, I voted for the H.R. 1957, the Great American Outdoors Act, when it passed the House in a bipartisan vote. Like the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act, this bill creates a new National Parks and Public Lands Restoration Fund (NPPLRF) to fund maintenance projects on lands managed by the National Parks Service, the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Education.
This means that there will be federal funding specifically dedicated to restoring our parks and addressing the deferred maintenance backlog. The Senate passed the Great American Outdoors Act earlier this year, so I am thrilled to see this bill finally on its way to the president’s desk.
The Great American Outdoors Act also permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The vast majority of funding for the LWCF is generated by offshore oil and gas leasing, and funds from the LWCF are used for land acquisition and outdoor recreation grants to states. For example, in our area, the LWCF is typically used to protect lands in and around the Cherokee National Forest, the Appalachian Trail and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
On a state level, LWCF has funded parks and projects across our district in Gatlinburg, Sevierville, Rogersville, Greeneville, Kingsport, Bristol, Johnson City and Morristown, to name just a few places. In other words, nearly every part of our district has benefitted from LWCF funds at some point, and it’s very likely that you and your family have enjoyed a park or recreation area helped by LWCF funds. Since its creation in 1965, the LWCF has funded close to $60 million in projects in our region alone.
The Great American Outdoors Act will have a tremendous impact on Northeast Tennessee. The Great Smoky Mountains, the Cherokee National Forest, and all our public lands in Northeast Tennessee deserve to be taken care of, and I was proud to join my colleagues in voting for this bill. By keeping our public lands in good shape, we will continue to enjoy the natural beauty of our region for generations to come.