Federal shutdown closes Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Oct. 02, 2013 @ 11:51 PM

With the local economy strongly dependent on tourism — and with the fall foliage color show being one of the biggest annual attractions — the largest impact of the federal shutdown on local economy comes from the closure of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

While roads through the park including Newfound Gap, the Spur and the Gatlinburg Bypass are open, other roads in the park are closed — including the popular Cades Cove Loop Road. The park’s trails, campgrounds, overlooks and visitors centers are closed as well.

Park spokesperson Dana Soehn said this has become one of most popular times of year for the park, which is the most visited national park in the country. It typically sees about 35,000 visitors a day during the month.

“(October) is one of our peak months,” she said. “In my tenure here we’ve seen this become more of a year-round destination. We’re busier now (at this time of year) than we used to be.”

The park’s web site, along with that of all the other national parks, has been closed during the shut down.

Soehn said 279 employees are on furlough, along with 60 concessions employees and 45 Great Smoky Mountains Association employees. Forty-seven employees remain on duty, providing security and emergency services.

Visitors who were staying overnight in the park were given until 6 p.m. Thursday to make new arrangements and leave the park.

The last time the federal government shut down — for 21 days in 1995-96 — the park didn’t feel as great an impact as officials are anticipating if it lasts a comparable period this year.

“It happened during the winter,” Soehn said. “It was a different kind of ball game. In January most of our campgrounds shut down anyway.”

The shutdown doesn’t affect vital services, which includes personnel at the Veterans Affairs Clinic in Sevierville. A spokesperson there said that office isn’t expecting to see any impact from it.

But the closure of the park could have a strong impact on the area’s tourism driven economy, particularly in Gatlinburg, which is adjacent to the park.

“The Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau is very sympathetic to the closure of Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” said Marci Claude, spokesperson for the bureau. “Not only is the national park an integral part of our tourist destination, but so are those who work there. The Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau strongly encourages our legislators to quickly resolve this situation so that our visitors can enjoy the beautiful fall foliage in the Great Smoky Mountains.

While the campgrounds in the park will be closed, she noted there are a number of privately owned campgrounds in the area and encouraged visitors who were forced to leave or whose stays were canceled to consider staying in that area.

jfarrell@themountainpress.com