Tennessee mayor offers to manage national park during partial shutdown

With no end in sight to the federal government shutdown, Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell is offering local resources to keep open parts of the most-visited national park in the country -- though he's having trouble getting the feds to agree.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which serves as a major draw for tourists to this east Tennessee community, has been closed since Oct. 1, when the federal government went into a partial shutdown.

The national park overlaps nearly one-third of Blount County. And it's in that area that Mitchell wants local volunteer firefighters and sheriff's deputies to manage roads and public safety. He said the plan would allow visitors to continue hiking, fishing and sightseeing in the park, at no cost to the federal government.

"We had everything covered," Mitchell said. "We had sat down and we had worked it out to where we could have opened those gates and it could have been business as usual for that area and for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Blount County."

Mitchell outlined his proposal last week in a letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. The mayor said he had yet to receive an official answer to his specific request.

However, the National Park Service issued a general statement saying the agency appreciates such offers, but cannot accept them.

"Beyond the legal constraints involved, it would not be appropriate or feasible to open some parks or some parts of parks while other parts of the National Park System remain closed to the public," NPS spokesperson Mike Litterst explained in a written statement.

October is normally one of the busiest months for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which attracts more than 9 million visitors each year. But this October is anything but normal with the ongoing budget standoff in Washington.

"It doesn't look to me as if there's going to be any kind of understanding between either one of the parties up there any time soon," Mitchell said. "I think we're destined to probably lose this entire month."

In addition to the economic impact on hotels, restaurants and other businesses near the park, county officials say the closure of roads inside the park have blocked the only school bus route for children living in a small mountain community called Top of the World. With the Foothills Parkway closed, parents have to drive their children on steep and winding secondary roads that are considered too rugged and too narrow for school buses.

Although park gates remain closed to vehicles (including bicycles), rangers have been allowing visitors to enter some areas on foot. Paul Cave, a school bus driver from Bonneville, Ky., said he and his wife Brenda visit the Smoky Mountains each year during his fall break.

Although the couple said they still had fun on their shorter-than-usual visit, they expressed frustration with the gridlock in Washington that led to the park closing in the first place.

"I would like to see where they could get along better than a bunch of kids up there," Paul Cave said. "I drive a school bus and haul kids, and that's kind of what they remind me of up there."

"Let's compromise a little bit," Brenda Cave added.