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Wednesday, 02 October 2013 15:59

Smokies and Parkway open to windshield tourists only

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fr emptylotThe impasse at the federal level will touch all areas of operation at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Blue Ridge Parkway, closing picnic areas, campgrounds, bathrooms, visitor centers and historic sites.

 

While people can still drive the main road through the Smokies, the roads into outlying recreation areas like Cataloochee Valley, Deep Creek and Big Creek will be gated off.

“The brief message is that all of our facilities are closed,” said Dana Soehn, a spokeswoman for the Great Smokies National Park.

Technically, even the trails in the Smokies are closed, although keeping hikers off the 800 miles of backcountry trails would realistically be impossible. 

“Are we going to go out and wrangle down people on the trail? I don’t think so,” she said. “But the backcountry is closed along with our trail system.”

The Smokies has 325 employees, many who live in the gateway communities surrounding the park. Around 280 were furloughed indefinitely. The remaining skeleton crew consists of law enforcement rangers, a handful of maintenance staff and an animal caretaker for the park’s backcountry horses and farm animals at the Mountain Farm Museum at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.

With October being one of the busiest months for the park, the closures will undoubtedly throw a wrench in the vacation plans of many.

Smokies visitation in October averages about 1.1 million. The park has 820 campsites at its many campgrounds. Of those, 300 were occupied when the shut down came Tuesday. The Smokemont campground, on the North Carolina side of the park, had about 45 occupied sites.

Campers were given 48 hours to vacate — with the promise of reimbursement for pre-paid sites.

Backcountry hikers, however, may not emerge from the trails for a day or two or even more. When they do, they will come off the trail to find a national park on idle. 

A lockdown of Cataloochee Valley, home to the largest elk herd in the Smokies, comes at one of the peak elk viewing times. It is the height of the elk rut, when males spar over female mating rights.

The Smokies had a constant stream of incoming calls Monday and Tuesday.

“We’ve got all our phones and our cell phones going,” Soehn said. “Obviously, it’s made an impact on people’s vacation plans and hiking and trail plans.”

But as the calls were coming in, the park staff was packing up to head for the house until further notice.

Even the park’s website has gone off line, an arguably puzzling side effect of the shutdown. Try visiting a national park website and the following error message pops up: “Because of the federal government shutdown all national parks are closed, and the national park service web pages are not operating.”

The story of closures is similar in the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests. Dozens of national forest recreation sites in WNC have been shut down, from shooting ranges to bathrooms to campgrounds. 

“Essentially, we’re closing down pretty much all of our facilities,” said Stevin Westcott, a spokesman for the forest service.

The national forest service isn’t closing trails. Backcountry camping is still allowed, too. But since there’s no rangers to monitor the forests or empty trash cans, everyone is asked to practice “Leave No Trace” principles. The national forests, in other words, are on autopilot. 

The Blue Ridge Parkway is keeping its scenic road opened but is shutting down all the other amenities — including bathroom rest areas, one of the most popular amenities along the 469-mile motorway. The popular Pisgah Inn will also close.

The Parkway sees an average of 70,000 visitors a day during the October fall leaf season.

Like in the Smokies, campers will have 48 hours to pack up and get out, but the parkway is holding off as long as possible before evacuating campers to see if the shutdown sticks.

“Say this were to resolve in a day or two,” said Parkway Chief Ranger Steve Stinnett. “We don’t want to turn people out and say ‘Get out, find someplace to stay.’”

Only 43 of the parkway’s 238 employees will stay on. Most are law enforcement personnel, plus a few maintenance staff. Even the parkway’s superintendent was furloughed.

The sum total of the national park closures will no doubt have a huge impact on a region dependant on tourism dollars, according to Don Barger, senior regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association’s Knoxville office. 

The national park system as a whole typically sees 750,000 visitors per day during October. That visitation translates to a $30 million daily economic impact on gateway communities surrounding all those national parks. Because the Smokies is one of the most visited parks, surrounded by a ring of tourism-dependent towns, Barger said the region has a lot to lose.

“The impacts on the adjacent communities can be pretty immense for every day the government remains closed,” he said. “The more days the parks stay closed, that impact multiplies.”

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