Government shutdown would mean Smokies closure

Sep. 28, 2013 @ 11:41 PM

From staff, wire reports

As the government squabbles over budget funding continue, concerns of an approaching government shutdown have the Great Smoky Mountains National Park preparing for the worst.

More than a third of federal workers would be told to stay home if the government shuts down, forcing the closure of national parks and all the Smithsonian museums. 

"We're all still really hopeful that it won't happen," Dana Soehn, spokesperson for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said Friday. "We're not taking any preemptive (steps). We'll take those steps Tuesday morning if directed by our director."

Still, Soehn said the staff has been advised as to what would happen should the government shutdown occur.

"If there was a government shutdown, what that would look like for us in the Smokies would be, Highway 441 from Gatlinburg to Cherokee, the Gatlinburg bypass, and the Spur all would remain open to through traffic. These roads are necessary for neighboring communities. But all other park roads would be closed to motorists, pedestrians and bicycles."

In addition, she said, essentially all of the park's public services would be closed — bathrooms, visitors centers, camping and picnic areas, concessions operations and backcountry trails.

"Overnight guests would be allowed adequate time (to vacate)," Soehn said. 

Volunteer activities and ranger-led programs would also be canceled, as most of the Smokies' over 300 employees would be furloughed, except for some law enforcement and maintenance personnel. 

The government could shut down as early as Tuesday if a bitterly divided Congress fails to approve a temporary spending bill to keep the government running.

The Senate approved the measure today, but it still must pass the House.

The last time the government shut down, in the mid-1990s, for 27 days, closures cost park-dependent communities an estimated $14 million daily, according to a report from the National Parks Conservation Association.

“When our national parks closed in 1995-96, I received an outpouring of calls from gateway communities alarmed by the situation,” said Phil Francis, the recently retired superintendent of Blue Ridge Parkway.

“The potential shutdown adds insult to injury because these communities are already concerned about the recent cutbacks in funding for national parks that have harmed the Park Service’s ability to serve visitors," Francis added. "No one expected these cuts to happen again. Now we’re looking at not only a potential shutdown, but the likelihood of another round of cuts. If that happens, there’s a good chance it’s going to be even harder.”