Tennessee's national parks in need of $294 million maintenance

Nancy, left, and Reese Conway look at cannons Wednesday, August 23, 2016, in the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.
Nancy, left, and Reese Conway look at cannons Wednesday, August 23, 2016, in the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.

Centennial Celebration Events

› Admission to Point Park on Lookout Mountain is free todayBlues on the knobWhen: Saturday, Sept. 10, 6-10 p.m.Where: Orchard Knob Reservation at Orchard Knob Avenue and Ivy StreetDetails: Enjoy the sounds of four blues bands and activities for children as the history of this unique, urban tract of the park is shared.New trail celebrationWhen: Saturday, Sept. 24, 9 a.m. - 9 p.m.Where: Sherman Reservation at Lightfootmill Road on Missionary RidgeDetails: Come celebrate this new trail connecting Pennsylvania Reservation on Glass Street to Sherman Reservation above. There will be activities throughout the day, including sunrise yoga and an evening movie.

Deferred maintenance backlog

Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military ParkBuildings: $2.4 millionHousing: $358,000Campgrounds: $9,510Trails: $770,550Wasterwater systems: $391,928Unpaved roads: $367,983Paved roads: $23.7 millionOther: $21.4 millionTotal: $49.5 millionGreat Smoky Mountains National ParkBuildings: $16.7 millionHousing: $1.1 millionCampgrounds: $2.1 millionTrails: $17.4 millionWastewater systems: $5.7 millionWater systems: $7.2 millionUnpaved roads: $5.2 millionPaved roads: $175 millionOther: $2 millionTotal: $232 millionState breakdownAlabama: $115 million at seven parksGeorgia: $215 million at 10 parksTennessee: $294 million at 11 parks

The senators speak

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn:“Most of deferred maintenance is road construction, and Congress is addressing that.Over the past several years, Congress has passed highway funding bills that allow national parks to receive increased funding. Last year, Congress authorized $268 million, which was an increase of $28 million in the amount of funding the National Park Service receives from the federal gas tax.In my view, park roads should receive an even larger share of the federal gas tax, which was a recommendation of the President’s Commission on American Outdoors, which I chaired for President Reagan.”Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. (via staff)“Senator Corker feels fortunate to have grown up in Tennessee and takes great pride in the fact that millions of people visit our state every year to experience our outdoors.He is a strong supporter of our national parks and will continue to advocate for proposals that allow the National Park Service to best conserve and maintain these national treasures to ensure they are available to future generations.”

Nancy and Reese Conway's trip to Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park last week embodied the economic benefit that park advocates tout.

They came from upper East Tennessee, primarily to indulge their interest in Civil War history by visiting the battlefield. They stayed at a downtown hotel, spent money on food and visited other attractions.

"The battlefield is the biggest reason we came," Reese Conway said. "We're going to do some other things, too, but me and my wife both wanted to see the battlefield."

The park, which includes the battlefield, Lookout Mountain's Point Park and four other, smaller parcels in the city, generates $63 million annually for the local economy, according to the National Park Service.

Still, its budget from the federal government is just a fraction of that amount, and it has a backlog of deferred maintenance projects nearing $50 million. Nationally, that backlog is nearly $12 billion.

The park is by no means in disrepair, but its maintenance backlog is emblematic of the challenges facing national parks across the country as the system celebrates its 100th anniversary this year and attempts to attract younger visitors, who can sustain it for another century.

"It's a major challenge," military park Superintendent Brad Bennett said. "But we have a strategy and welcome all the support we get."

Times are even tougher near the Conways' home.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most-visited NPS park, is facing a maintenance backlog of $232 million. City governments in Maryville, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville and Gatlinburg passed resolutions calling on Congress to take action.

Road maintenance accounts for $175 million of the backlog in the 500,000-plus-acre park that stretches into North Carolina and reportedly generates more than $800 million annually in tourism revenue.

"Congress must take control of this situation and create a reliable stream of resources to address the problems in our National Park," Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner said in a statement. "Our visitors rely on safe roadways as they drive through the Smokies."

Road projects also account for a significant portion of the backlog at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.

While the park was able to knock $3 million off its deferred maintenance total with a federal highway grant to repave LaFayette Road last year, road repairs are more than $20 million of the park's backlog.

Eighty percent of the park's $3.3 million budget goes to recurring costs and general upkeep for the 10,000-acre park that employs 30 people, Bennett said. That leaves just $660,000 each year in discretionary funding to attack the deferred maintenance backlog, which also includes monument upkeep, building repairs and trails.

The park piecemeals together an additional $1 million annually through donations made to Friends of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, grants and gate fees at Point Park to help chip away at bigger maintenance projects.

"Certainly, we cobble together the funding sources that are available to us right now," Bennett said. "One of the reasons Congress created the law that allowed parks to collect entrance fees and raise them was in recognition of the need for additional funding.

"It's a combination of funding sources, and we're doing what we can to take care of the needs we prioritize, and we appreciate all the support we do receive from outside groups."

The park also benefits from a volunteer program that brings in hundreds of people to complete more than 10,000 hours of service each year.

"Oftentimes, when you see someone picking up litter, helping at an information desk or cleaning monuments, it's a volunteer," Bennett said. "We appreciate people's time and their treasure. It's all part of that theme of connecting with the public, because, ultimately, all Americans own this national park. It belongs to all of us."

Another significant chunk of the backlog at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park is the riverbank at the Moccasin Bend National Archaeological District, where the Army Corps of Engineers and the park have been working to stabilize the shoreline. A new section of that project is due to be completed at the Brown's Ferry overlook next year, Bennett said.

The park is expected to begin implementing a management plan in 2017 for the historically significant 750-acre Moccasin Bend that will further develop the area's hiking and paddling offerings and potentially include a visitors center.

Increased recreation opportunities at or near parcels of the park are one way of engaging the next generation of parkgoers and stewards, said Tricia Mims, executive director of the Friends group.

"There are just a lot of fun activities that tie in Chattanooga's outdoor inclination to thinking, 'Wow, we have a national park in our backyard,'" Mims said. "I think there's a good synergy between the outdoor mecca that Chattanooga is becoming, and people becoming more aware that this national park is their park and that people can do things to improve it."

But many will continue to come and do what the Conways did last week: reflect on the significance of a place that has the distinction of being a national park.

"It's a beautiful place," Reese Conway said of the Chickamauga battlefield. "It's hard to describe in a lot of ways, because there's a lot of sadness there to know how many people perished and all the pain and suffering that was there. It's really sad those parks aren't funded by the federal government and Department of the Interior at a higher level than what they are, considering what is there.

"The heritage of this nation is there, and they need to fund that at a higher level."

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

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