Friends of the Smokies working on park’s issues

Tom KingBlount, Farragut, Sevier

On Sept. 2, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most heavily visited of the country’s 63 national parks, will turn 81 years old. That has caused two major issues – maintenance and overflowing parking lots, traffic backups and crowded camping areas. Tim Chandler of the Friends of the Smokies says relief is on the way – but it won’t be here today or tomorrow.

Chandler, a Farragut resident, spoke to the Rotary Club of Farragut Jan. 20.

Tim Chandler and daughter Catherine at Cascade Falls last Sunday.

There are days, he says, when it takes Cades Cove visitors eight to 10 hours to navigate the 11-mile loop road. There are days when the Clingman’s Dome parking lot stays full all day. Many of the facilities need upgrading or replaced – buildings, bathrooms, hiking trails, visitors’ centers, staff offices and roads, among others.

“With 12 million plus visitors a year, the Great Smokies Park is being loved to death,” Chandler said. “The campgrounds, the vistas and the roads are at all-time max capacity, and we need money for maintenance.”

Chandler, entering his third year as the organization’s executive director after 25 years at Scripps Networks, says one major project to help alleviate traffic congestion will be a timed-entry reservation system for the park’s most congested areas. That could be in place two years from now.

The park is one of the few that does not charge an entry fee and last year that helped attract 12.5 million visitors.

The park has requested the Friends of the Smokies donate $1.9 million to the park this year. Since 1993, Friends of the Smokies has raised more than $72 million to fund historic preservation, wildlife management, environmental education, providing volunteers for projects and more in the park.

The park’s shrinking fiscal year budget is $19 million. In 2014 it was $18.5 million with 300-plus employees. The park’s financial support from Congress is not keeping up with its needs – to say the least.

A few quick facts:

  • The park covers 500,000 acres – and 800 square miles of Tennessee and North Carolina.
  • The park has 900 miles of trails and more than 1,000 campsites.
  • It supports 14,000 East Tennessee jobs.
  • The Sugarlands Visitors Center has the most visitors and plans are to replace it in five years.
  • The license plate project of the Friends of the Smokies raised $700,000 in Tennessee and $400,000 in North Carolina.

Former Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, a towering champion of the park, helped to pass the Great American Outdoors Act in 2020 that will provide money for the park. Chandler does not know how much. “That’s up to this next Congress that is just beginning,” he said.

Also out there is the Trails Forever program that allocates $6 million for 10 positions to do trail restoration and maintenance. Chandler said work will begin soon to rebuild the Abrams Fall Trail. The trail will not be closed during the work, he said.

There is much to know and learn about the Friends of the Smokies. If you want more information or would like to join, go here or call Tim at 865-932-4794 to ask him your questions.

To explore membership in the Rotary Club of Farragut, email Tom King here or call 865-659-3562. Tom King has served at newspapers in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and California and has been the editor of two newspapers.

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