Staff file photo by Doug Strickland / Park ranger Chris Barr, left, talks about "The Battle of Lookout Mountain" mural by James Walker with U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander during an April 2018 visit by Alexander to Point Park on Lookout Mountain. Sen. Alexander visited the park to push for his bill to help address maintenance backlogs at federal and national parks.

One year ago, I was a part of a group of park advocates who took a tour of my favorite public space: Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. We met on a sunny day and walked through the iconic entrance gates of Point Park; took in the views of Chattanooga and the Tennessee River valley, and read from the plaques detailing movements of the Civil War battle that took place in our backyard. But also, we took note of the deteriorating condition of many walkways, trails, and visitor spaces that represented the growing backlog of pending National Park Service maintenance projects.

We knew this backlog, which totals $12 billion in our national park system across the country, would only increase and ultimately discourage visitors if left unaddressed. Locally, our park faces $29.5 million in deferred maintenance as of 2018, affecting roads, bridges, trails, and welcome facilities.

That's why I'm excited to hear that the Great American Outdoors Act, Senate bill No. 3422 sponsored by our very own Sen. Lamar Alexander, is headed to the Senate floor for a vote early this month. This vote represents years of advocacy on the part of National Park Partners and our peers across the country, as well as the sustained effort by Alexander to cement his legacy as a champion for East Tennessee's vast public lands.

In fact, just northeast of Chattanooga lies the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most popular national park in the United States with record-breaking visitation each year. A Maryville native, raised in the foothills of the Smokies, Alexander understands the value of our public lands not only to our peace of mind, but to our local economies. In the greater Chattanooga area, the National Park Service reports visitor spending related to Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park totaled $55.8 million in 2018 — a tremendous boost for our hospitality, recreation, restaurant, and other industries that benefit from the ever-growing number of people coming to enjoy all that Chattanooga offers.

However, there were no assurances that the Great American Outdoors Act would come to fruition. Year after year, Alexander introduced previous versions of the bill that would tackle the maintenance backlog in our national parks. The bipartisan legislation collected dozens of co-sponsors, including several Tennesseans such as Rep. Chuck Fleischmann and Rep. Tim Burchett, but the bill's passing continued to be kicked down the road. In March, we heard that it was the next big piece of legislation for Congress to take up; however, like much of life during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, those plans came to a screeching halt.

From the beginning of this crisis, Americans' appreciation for nearby public lands grew as we worked together to stay at home and reduce the spread. Now, as we begin to slowly rediscover the enjoyment of a family hike or bike ride in our national parks, it's more important than ever that we address the maintenance issues that diminish the park experience, or worse, create safety issues for millions of Americans for whom quality time outdoors is an essential part of the healing process.

This legislation ensures we will enjoy our public lands for generations to come, sustaining local economies, and accelerating our recovery from the economic collapse caused by the pandemic.

Let us all salute Sen. Lamar Alexander for his dedicated leadership on this issue and urge other representatives in government to support his legislation.

Tricia Mims is the executive director of National Park Partners.

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Tricia Mims