The United States Senate is considering the most important conservation legislation that we’ve had in half a century, the Great American Outdoors Act. The legislation has the strong support of President Trump, the last six Secretaries of Interior, over 800 sportsmen and conservation groups, and 59 senators — Democrats and Republicans — who are working together in a remarkable way.
It will do more for our public lands—our national parks, our national forests, our national refuges, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Bureau of Indian Education — than any piece of legislation we have passed in at least 50 years.
Let me tell you what we’re talking about. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has about 12 million visitors a year. That’s three or four times as many as Yellowstone or any of the Western parks. It has $224 million dollars of deferred maintenance and an annual budget of about $20 million a year. So you don’t have to have gone too far in mathematics in the Maryville public school system to understand that it would probably take 15, 20, 25 years, or never, to be able to get rid of the deferred maintenance in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — our most visited national park.
Here’s just one example of how this maintenance backlog affects our parks in Tennessee. Look Rock Campground on Chilhowee Mountain, at the edge of the Smokies, was closed for several years because the sewage system didn’t work. So 5,000 families who would normally use that campground in the summer to see its majestic view of the highest mountains in the Eastern United States didn’t have the opportunity to do that.
Now that’s a massive disappointment to people who consider our national parks as our greatest treasures — who go to our parks and find a campground closed, a bathroom not working, a bridge that’s closed, a road with potholes, a trail that’s worn out or a visitor center that could be dilapidated.
The Great American Outdoors Act includes legislation I introduced, the Restore Our Parks Act, that will help restore our 419 national parks — from the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the Grand Canyon to Yosemite National Park — by cutting in half that maintenance backlog over the next five years.
This bill means the Cherokee National Forest, which is the largest piece of public land in Tennessee, will get help with its $27 million maintenance backlog to make sure their access roads and trails are kept open for their three million visitors each year. And the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge will get help with its $8.4 million maintenance backlog to make sure the hunters and fishers can safely use boat ramps and boat docks.
Another important aspect of the Great American Outdoors Act is that it fully funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) permanently — with the goal of taking an environmental burden — drilling on federal lands — and turning it into an environmental benefit by supporting state and federal conservation programs.
The LWCF has played a large role in protecting the outdoors. In our state, the LWCF has provided about $221.4 million for conservation and outdoor recreation efforts since the 1960s.
For example, the Forest Legacy Program, which receives its funding from the LWCF, provided a majority of the funding necessary to conserve a nearly 9,000 acre tract in Tennessee known as the Walls of Jericho, which is also known as the Grand Canyon of the South. Funding from the LWCF also resulted in the acquisition of the John Tully State Forest — only the second state forest established in the last half-century, which provides some of the state’s best hunting and fishing lands.
I hope we in the Senate have great success with this bill. I know that the people of Tennessee are looking forward to it.
Lamar Alexander represents Tennessee in the U.S. Senate.