Great Smoky Mountains National Park reopens to visitors

Great Smoky Mountains National Park reopens to visitors

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Traffic was lined up outside the Townsend entrance to the park before it opened as tourists waited to enter. Traffic was lined up outside the Townsend entrance to the park before it opened as tourists waited to enter.
"We can't afford not to invest the money into keeping this park open for the businesses and the citizens of Blount County," said Mayor Ed Mitchell. "We can't afford not to invest the money into keeping this park open for the businesses and the citizens of Blount County," said Mayor Ed Mitchell.
Park rangers finally made the call to open the gates early and began welcoming people back to the park. Park rangers finally made the call to open the gates early and began welcoming people back to the park.
"This morning was like welcoming family back together so it's kind of been like a reunion," said Park Spokesperson Dana Soehn. "This morning was like welcoming family back together so it's kind of been like a reunion," said Park Spokesperson Dana Soehn.

TOWNSEND (WATE) - Roads and trails leading into Great Smoky Mountains National Park were reopened Wednesday morning, 15 days after being closed because of the federal government shutdown.

Traffic was lined up outside the Townsend entrance to the park before it opened as tourists waited to enter. A ceremony celebrating the reopening had to be moved to the Tremont campground because of the traffic.

"We had traffic backed up at the Sugarlands and we also had traffic backed up from here at the "Y"  all the way into Townsend," said Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell. "That gives you an idea of what we were missing on a daily basis by this park being shut."

Park rangers finally made the call to open the gates early and began welcoming people back to the park.

It was also a chance for those rangers to see co-workers they hadn't seen since the furlough began. Many of them were back at work by 6 a.m. making sure the park was ready for visitors.

"This morning was like welcoming family back together so it's kind of been like a reunion," said Park Spokesperson Dana Soehn. "Everybody is anxious to get back to work."

The reopening could not have come at a better time. The fall colors are beginning to appear and that is a big draw for tourists.

The celebratory mood in the park could be short-lived, however. Unless the government shutdown is resolved by Congress, the park will only remain open until 11:59 p.m. Sunday Oct. 20.

That's when a deal between Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, along with county leaders in Sevier and Blount counties, comes to an end.

The national park costs $60,100 to operate per day, according to the National Park Service. It will take $300,500 to keep the park open for five days.

Mitchell says their portion of the funds will be coming from the Blount County Tourism Authority, which he says is money well spent.

"We can't afford not to do it," said Mitchell. "We can't afford not to invest the money into keeping this park open for the businesses and the citizens of Blount County."

Workers at the park hope by the time the five day period is up, some sort of deal will be reached to keep the park open for good.

What happens after Sunday? 

Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell says his county is ready to extend the opening by five more days.

"We have talked with the tourism authority and they are going to fund, they are willing to fund it, for five more days," said Mayor Mitchell.

Unfortunately, the money from Blount County only is only a small percentage of the total cost to keep the park open.     

Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters is not sure what he is going to do.

"We are going to have those discussions over the next few days before we get to Sunday about what we might do," said Mayor Waters.

6 News contacted Governor Haslam's office. They released this statement: "We continue to watch the situation in Washington and have communication with the national park service."    

The National Park Service says so far, nothing is planned for after Sunday.

"We remain hopeful that the federal government will come to some sort of solution before the funds run out on Sunday, but at this point we do not have any knowledge of a new agreement between the states of Tennessee and North Carolina," said parks spokesperson Dana Soehn.

Even though the politicians 6 News spoke with on Wednesday are not sure what is going to happen after the five days, visitors in the park say they hope they figure out something very soon.

"We are sad other folks who have planned vacations all year might now get to go because it closes again so quickly on Sunday," said park visitor Kim Travis.

Officials at the governor's office in North Carolina did not respond for comment.      

The National Park Service spokesperson says right now they do not have a shutdown plan in place if they are going to have to close again on Sunday.     

"We are so optimistic that we are just planning now and hoping this is a permanent reopening for us," said Soehn.

Soehn says last time they shut down, it took 48 hours to get everyone out of the park.

All national parks were closed October 1 when Congress failed to pass a funding bill, leading to a partial government shutdown.

The federal government agreed last week to allow states to reopen national parks if they paid for the operating costs.

Bills introduced in the U.S. House and Senate would reimburse states within 90 days for costs associated with reopening the parks.

For more information, visit the park's website.

6 News Reporters DREW GARDNER and JOSH AULT contributed to this report.

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