At the outset of 2020, there was plenty of reason for optimism in our tourism and recreation industry: Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park welcomed record numbers of visitors in the previous year, injecting millions of dollars into local economies throughout East Tennessee. With a mild winter lifting, we anticipated an enjoyable spring and summer. The rain ended, the sun broke through, then, the unimaginable happened. A virus that devastated communities around the world was here in the United States. Our public health officials have told us the best way to stop the spread is to stay at home.
As people began to social distance, we noticed a significant spike in visitation at parks throughout East Tennessee. While we initially thought the outdoors would be a good alternative to get away from large crowds and take in nature, our city, state and national parks have been rightly closed to prevent visitor crowding.
Local businesses owners who rely on visitors to eat in their restaurants, shop at local outfitters, spend a night at their lodging facility, or partake in other activities are deeply hurting with no end in sight. Park advocates like the Southeastern Climbers Coalition knew that a dip in visitors to our national parks would harm the local economy, but the impact of shuttering Chattanooga's visitor-adjacent businesses shows exactly how truly essential they are to our economy.
We had been worried about the backlog of deferred maintenance projects faced by Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park and others; the sheer number of trails, roads, visitor centers, bathrooms, and park infrastructure assets that crumble under the weight of so many visitors. The climbing coaltion has rallied volunteers for the past two decades to help put a dent in maintaining trails, removing graffiti and picking up litter, and we were happy to see Sen. Lamar Alexander prioritize the maintenance of our parks. Through the Great American Outdoors Act, he championed legislation that could cut the $12 billion national parks maintenance backlog in half.
Now COVID-19 has put that on hold, too. Sen. Alexander has recently said that passage of the bill would be postponed until "things return to normal," but we must question when, or if, that time will come.
What we need is quick, decisive action from our leaders in Congress to continue to stimulate the economy at every level. What better way than including the outdoors act in the next round of stimulus/relief legislation? By fixing our parks, we'll stimulate the economy and again provide quality access to the outdoor spaces critical to our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
Sen. Alexander's legislation can be a key component of our economic recovery. The outdoors act immediately creates jobs that will rehabilitate our parks, providing greater access to the outdoors that will help our citizens recover both economically and physically. What better way to support our outdoor economy than by investing in our parks and putting Tennesseans back to work?
Our national parks and the businesses that rely on them can't afford to wait until "things return to normal" to fix our parks. Tennesseans are diligently following social distancing orders by staying at home, but we don't know how long these measures will last. In the meantime, Sen. Alexander's time in the Senate is quickly diminishing. We can't assume the person who replaces him in November will continue to be a champion for our parks.
The Great American Outdoors Act is an opportunity to display what good government can accomplish for Tennessee and for the country.
Andrea Hassler is the Executive Director of the Southeastern Climbers Coalition.