'All about power and leverage' -- feds shut down major roadway, block access to graveyard

Folks who live in the Great Smoky Mountains have just about reached their breaking point with the federal government.

“It’s almost like they are pushing to see how far they can push before the American people say enough is enough,” said Ed Mitchell, the mayor of Blount County, Tenn. “We were founded on a declaration of independence. And they are about to push the people to the line again.”

Nearly a third of Blount County is inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. So when the federal government shut down the park, it also shut down one of the area’s chief sources of revenue.

The National Park Service also closed the Foothills Parkway, a major thoroughfare in the county. The closure came without warning and left the local school district scrambling to get children back to their homes.


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The children live in the eastern Tennessee community of Top of the World – serviced by School Bus 49. Normally, the bus travels along the Foothills Parkway. Other roads leading to the isolated mountain community are impassible by bus.

“It’s dangerous,” said Nancy Kemp, the spokesperson for Blount County Schools.”It’s very curvy and straight up the mountain. It’s just not a safe route.”

One local resident told Knoxville television station WBIR that the alternative roads are “white knuckle routes.”

The closure caught locals by surprise and left the school district scrambling to alert parents that they would need to find a way to get their kids back home. And until the partial government shutdown ends, school buses will not run. That means parents will have to transport their children to and from school using treacherous “white knuckle routes.”

“I’ve already talked with some of our neighbors (and) we’re going to be carpooling,” resident Danielle McClurg told the television station. “It’s going to be very inconvenient for our community.”

Resident Buzz King said the shutdown of the Parkway has already created hardships for the mountain town.

“It’s going to be tough on people up here – definitely tough,” he said.

Local businesses are also facing tough times.

“Twenty-eight percent of the park is Blount County,” the mayor told me. “And this is the busiest season for us – when the colors are changing.”

And so long as the shutdown is in effect – that means no fishing, hiking, horse-back riding, or camping inside the park.

“That’s a slap in the face to the American people,” Mitchell said. “They should have never, ever let this happen.”

One of the areas shut down is the popular Cades Cove – an old community that was donated by local residents to the federal government some 75 years ago, the mayor said.

“Hundreds of families gave up that land, packed up their stuff and moved out to give the country that park,” he said. ‘Now, they’re watching the government shut the gate on it.”

Even more insulting is the National Park Service won’t allow family members to visit old grave sites.

“Some of them have family members buried there,” the mayor said. “And they go and visit every week at the churches still in the cove. They are not able to do that.”

It’s gotten to the point where Mayor Mitchell said Americans are ready to start fighting back.
“It’s almost like they are pushing to see how far they can push before the American people say enough is enough,” he said.

They almost crossed that line in Blount County.

The mayor sent a letter to the Department of Interior and copied the area’s congressional delegation. The letter detailed a plan that would allow the local government to take control of the park until the federal shutdown ended.

“We were willing to open that park up at no cost to the federal government,” he said. “We worked out a plan. That park could be running today just as efficiently as if the federal government had it up and running.”

He never heard back from the feds or his state’s congressional delegation.

“I’m not so sure any of them care anymore,” said the self-identified conservative Republican mayor. “Before you start hearing from the federal government, something has to happen to make them care.”

Local residents have become so frustrated they actually devised a plan to circumvent the feds.

“We already had the codes on the gates and we were getting ready to open it up without notifying them,” the mayor said. “Wiser heads prevailed.”

So at what point do you say to heck with the feds?

“There are laws,” the mayor said. “As radical as some things can be, I don’t know if you want to stop over that line or not.”

The mayor said he wanted to “make them aware that we were willing to do what they were not. We were willing to serve the people that they were not willing to serve.”

I asked the mayor if he felt like local residents were getting ready to fight back. He agreed.

“I hate that it’s come to this,” he said. “This whole thing is all about power and leverage.”

The mayor said lawmakers in Washington are more interested in slander than serving the people.

“If there’s ever been an indicator that we need term limits, this has to be an indicator that we need term limits in Washington, D.C.,” he said.