Budget Boost

Smoky Mountain National Park to get needed funding hike

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park stands to receive an additional $1.5 million on top of its $17.2 million annual budget this coming fiscal year if Congress gives the increase its final approval.

"There are still some uncertainties," says the park's perennial spokesman, Bob Miller, who worries that a final round of congressional recissions could cut the park's eventual budget line. But he says the boost is needed to begin catching up on maintenance and personnel shortfalls that have plagued the park for years and necessitated private contributions and broad rounds of volunteer efforts to try to meet purchasing and maintenance schedules.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, however, says he believes the park increase has survived the congressional recissions of items in the omnibus bill that sets FY 2008 funding levels and that the outlook for 2009 funding looks good in the wake of President Bush's FY 2009 federal budget proposals. Miller says the park won't start spending any money from the increase just yet. "We hope to have a better fix on it [the budget] by the first week in March," he says.

Miller says the park is also looking for a share of $25 million to be parceled out among the national parks for projects to be funded on a local matching basis. Such organizations as the Friends of the Smokies and the Great Smoky Mountains Association can be counted on for some help in raising matching funds, as can the state of Tennessee.

On the list of projects that could be undertaken with the matching funds, Miller says, are the stabilization of historic structures at Elkmont, outfitting a new visitors' center at Oconaluftee in North Carolina, rehabilitation of deteriorating exhibits at the Sugarlands visitors' center outside of Gatlinburg on the Tennessee side, expansion of the program toward eradicating the woolly adelgids that have been killing Fraser firs in the Smokies, and establishing a program to monitor airborne mercury and its effects on the park's flora.

Jim Hart, president of the Friends of the Smokies organization, says the membership is "delighted" with the proposed federal funding increase. "It's not like a windfall. They're so far behind and have so many things to do," he says of the park staff, "and their budget has been slashed for years."

His organization, with about 4,000 active members, has raised $5 million to support the park in the past five years, just through the sale of specialty license plates in Tennessee and North Carolina, and members help organize and participate in volunteer maintenance of trails and other park facilities.