Smokies closed: 384 Park employees furloughed due to government shutdown
By Joel Davis | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The shutdown of the federal government is immediately being felt in Blount County as Great Smoky Mountains National Park employees find themselves sent home without pay.
In the Park, 279 employees are on furlough because of the government shutdown along with 60 concessions employees and 45 Great Smoky Mountains Association employees who are similarly affected. There are 47 employees who remain on duty, providing security and emergency services.
The National Park Service (NPS) has closed all 401 national parks. In the Smokies, with the exception of the U.S. Highway 441 (Newfound Gap Road) between Gatlinburg and Cherokee, N.C., “The Spur” between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg and the Gatlinburg Bypass, the entire Park is closed. This includes all roads, trails and facilities. Visitors are not permitted to walk, bicycle or ride horses on closed roadways. The park will remain closed until the government reopens.
Park visitors in all overnight campgrounds and lodges have until 6 p.m. today to leave the park. In addition, all park programs, Parks as Classrooms education programs and special events have been canceled, including permitted weddings and special services in Park facilities.
The shutdown even includes the entire section of the Appalachian Trail through the Smokies. The 71-mile section is now closed to thru-hikers and all other users, according to the GSMA.
Park Visitor Centers located outside the Park and operated by GSMA, including Gatlinburg, Townsend and Sevierville, will remain open during their regular hours of operation.
The effects of the shutdown are spilling out into the wider community as well. Rob Fightmaster, owner of Fightmaster Fly Fishing, which offers guided fishing trips within the Park, said October is supposed to one of his busiest times of the year.
“I expected to not have a day off in October,” he said. “I have people booking those days months and months in advance, so not a good time for them to close the doors. If this shutdown only lasts two or three days, businesses like mine and other tourism-driven businesses, we can absorb that, but it lasts two or three weeks, that’s going to take a bite for sure.
“We’re going to keep trying to move some people to other destinations, but certainly a lot of people specifically come here to fish the Smokies and to do so in October when it’s one of the peak seasons fishing-wise.”
The Park shutdown is apparently meaning more visitors for the Great Smoky Mountain Heritage Center in Townsend. “Right now, we’re getting a lot of phone calls to see if we’re open,” Heritage Center Director Bob Patterson said. “We have people who are coming in because the Park is closed.”
GSMA Executive Director Terry Maddox released a statement about the effects on his organization: “Unfortunately for the Park and the association, the shutdown has occurred during its busiest month of the year and has closed the most popular visitor centers inside the Park at Sugarlands, Oconaluftee, Cades Cove and Clingmans Dome.
Maddox said the shutdown could result in 40 or more association staff members being laid off. “This disaster is happening at our most important time of year as it relates to our ability to provide educational materials and services to visitors and financial support for our Park,” Maddox said. “Some 8,500 people use Park visitor centers in the Smokies on an average October day.”
Programs at Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont have been suspended. Roads leading to Tremont have been gated closed and locked during the shutdown. Once the shutdown ends, Tremont will resume programming fairly quickly. It will be updating http://www.gsmit.org with updates as they occur.