The federal stalemate continued over the weekend, and the government shutdown that includes more than 800,000 federal workers across the country marched toward week three.
The shutdown has left many workers furloughed while others, like airline security personnel, are working without pay. Among the furloughed workers are national park personnel.
From the mountains to the prairies, to the oceans, our Home Sweet Home includes 60 national parks, 88 national monuments, 19 national reserves, 78 national historic sites, 29 national memorials, 18 national recreation areas, 15 national rivers and 51 national historical parks.
These special places offer all kinds of outdoor recreation opportunities, like hiking, biking or mountain climbing, if that’s your thing, or a chance to explore historically significant sites, like the site of Civil War battles or the monuments of the National Mall in Washington, DC. We have the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area and the Obed Wild and Scenic River right in our backyard, preserving pristine waters, providing access to amazing geological formations and preserving our unique history with interpretive centers for primitive farming and the coal towns that once dotted our region.
Many parks have remained open during the shutdown, though visitors encounter drastically reduced services. There’s no visitor center, no guided hikes, no restrooms. For nearby Sevier County and the communities outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, that’s a blessing and a curse.
The park is an economic driver for East Tennessee, drawing more than 11 million visitors during 2016 — not counting the 11 million people visiting the attractions in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge. It was the most-visited national park that year, topping the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone.
It also generated about $734 million in economic activity in 2013 and supported more than 10,000 jobs in surrounding communities. These weren’t people employed by the park but by the businesses and services that pop up to serve all those visitors in restaurants and lodging, souvenir shops or gear stores where the adventurous can stock up on hiking socks, replace a water filter or buy a new sleeping bag to stay warm on their winter trips.
But without the National Park Service personnel there to take off the trash and clean the bathrooms, parks across the country have struggled with humans who don’t know how to behave themselves.
The parks are asking everyone to practice “leave no trace” when they visit the parks. I’d like to think everyone knows what that means when they’re in the backcountry — don’t throw your trash on the ground and take out everything you take in. However, I’ve visited enough scenic areas to know that some people don’t understand that their plastic bottle shouldn’t be dropped on the side of the trail and forgotten.
Thankfully, volunteers in Tennessee and across the country have stepped up. In some parks, volunteers have been cleaning bathrooms — because people were using the bathroom outside the closed facilities, and they weren’t cleaning up after themselves. Nothing ruins a day in nature like stumbling across someone else's used toilet paper.
Over the weekend, a father-daughter team hit the trail. In addition to their water, trail food and hiking poles, Marc and Erica Newland brought along some trash bags.
“We headed up the trail, and before we knew it, our bags were full,” he wrote on a Hike the Smokies Facebook group.
He encouraged others to take a break from their hiking plans and instead get in some steps picking up litter at visitor centers, trailheads, picnic stops and anywhere else they find their fellow humans have been careless with their trash.
There are some events planned at Big South Fork and Obed Wild and Scenic River later in the month. Of course, if the shutdown continues, those schedules would likely change. If you visit a national park site in the next few days (hopefully only days!), be a good steward of these special places. Don’t try to enter areas that are closed. The gates are there for a reason.
Once things return to normal, remember always to treat our outdoor spaces with respect. Take only pictures. Leave only footprints.
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Heather Mullinix is editor of the Crossville Chronicle. Her column is published on Tuesdays. She may be reached at email@example.com.