Local Business Owner Urges Alexander To Pass GAOA Stimulas

Springtime in East Tennessee is marked by life-giving rainfall, verdant landscapes, and plenty of tourists and visitors ready to take advantage of the rich public lands offered by our part of the world. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with 12.5 million visitors in 2019 alone, offers scenic views, winding trails, and diverse wildlife. Those who visit the park are more likely to stop by local businesses, spend money, and fuel our local economy. In 2018 alone, visitors spent roughly $953 million in East Tennessee, supporting thousands of local jobs.

Photo: Michael Sheppard, owner of Great Smoky Mountains Outfitters in Sevierville, Tennessee.

However, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has upended life as we know it, forcing visitors to stay home, nonessential businesses to close, and our national parks to shutter. My business, Great Smoky Mountains Outfitters, is no exception. I am one of thousands of small businesses in East Tennessee that directly benefit from visitors who come to town for our public lands. Yet because of necessary social distancing measures, we’ve lost business and are fighting hard to survive at a time of year when we’d normally be in midst of the busy season.

While I’m glad to hear that the National Park Service is reopening the park, this painful experience has underscored a fact well known in our community: in order to sustain the economy, we must invest in our public lands to ensure visitors can enjoy the Smokies for generations to come. That means not only reopening the Smokies but reducing the more than $235 million backlog in deferred maintenance projects that make the park inhospitable to visitors.

Nationwide, our parks face a nearly $12 billion repair backlog of roads, bridges, water systems, buildings, camp sites, trails, and more that are crumbling under the stress of increased use and age. We simply cannot afford to allow this critical infrastructure to be neglected.

Tennessee’s own Senator Lamar Alexander knows the importance of our parks to our economy. That’s why he is championing the Great American Outdoors Act, legislation that dedicates $6.5 billion dollars of funding over the next 5 years to reduce the maintenance backlog. Before the pandemic began in earnest in the United States, this legislation was next for consideration in the U.S. Senate. However, Alexander admitted the legislation has been put on the backburner until “things return to normal.”

However, we have no idea when things will return to normal. Our governor might have us reopening some businesses, but public health experts say that this virus will be with us for months to come. The virus doesn’t respect borders and certainly not retirement plans. If Senator Alexander doesn’t prioritize the Smokies now, he may lose his last chance before he retires in January 2021.

Stewardship of the Smokies – and the local economies it sustains – is too important to let his successor pick up where he left off. Senator Alexander should include the Great American Outdoors Act in one of the forthcoming stimulus packages being considered by Congress. After all, the parks bill is fundamentally about jobs. The legislation would provide immediate jobs for Tennesseans to go to work repairing and rebuilding our national parks. In the long term, it will ensure businesses like mine are able to continue to serve record-breaking levels of tourists who will return to the Smokies after this crisis is over.

I urge Senator Alexander to continue to fight for the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act. East Tennesseans deserve nothing less.

Michael Sheppard is the owner of Great Smoky Mountains Outfitters in Sevierville, Tennessee.