Two of our favorite outdoor play areas in the region are gaining major financial support from the recently confirmed and historic Great American Outdoors Act. Thanks to its funding, the Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park are getting money put towards much-needed repairs.
Signed into law back in August 2020, the federal legislation permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million, which acquires land to conserve and create parks. It also establishes the National Park and Public Lands Legacy Fund which directs up to $9.5 billion in additional funding over the next five years. That money will start to chip away at the $12 billion maintenance backlog of the country’s 423 national parks and other public lands.
For the Smokies and the parkway, both built during the Great Depression, these funds will go towards roads and crumbling infrastructure, including an old bridge on the parkway that is at risk of destruction from high winds.
According to spokeswoman Leesa Brandon, the parkway, which is the most-visited national park site, has a maintenance backlog of $500 million. The Department of the Interior (DOI) has chosen two maintenance projects for the parkway that will begin in the fiscal year of 2022 with an estimated cost of $30 million. One will replace the Laurel Fork Bridge and the other will improve road quality.
- Laurel Fork Bridge Replacement
Originally built in 1939, the existing Laurel Fork Bridge is 546 feet long and 28 feet wide with an estimated four years of service life left, according to the Eastern Federal Lands Highway Division (EFLHD). The project description posted by the U.S. DOT’s Federal Highway Administration states that the bridge will be replaced with a new segmental concrete bridge once the existing bridge is removed.
“Per EFLHD recommendations, the Park has been monitoring the wind speeds and closing the bridge during major wind events since wind is the critical loading factor on the bridge,” the U.S. DOT’s Federal Highway Administration stated in its project description.
- Road Project
It’s no secret that the driving portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway is a huge part of the experience when visiting. The project “rehabilitates and reconstructs 75.5 miles of mainline parkway within North Carolina (road segments 2B-2H) as well as associated ramps and park areas,” the DOI stated on their Great American Outdoors Act FY 2021 project list.
The Great Smoky Mountains, covering a half-million acres of rugged forest terrain of east Tennessee and WNC, has $236 million in deferred maintenance according to park spokeswoman Dana Soehn. Luckily, two projects are receiving funds in 2021 through the Great American Outdoors Act.
- Foothills Parkway Rehabilitation
This project will restore 17 miles of the Foothills Parkway from Chillhowee Lake to Walland on the Tennessee side according to the DOI’s project list. The road offers visitors access to a panoramic view of the park.
- Replace Sugarlands Maintenance Facilities
Sugarlands is in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and homes buildings that were built back in the 1960s. The DOI’s project list claims that this project will address maintenance on multiple park buildings and supporting infrastructure.
The process of choosing which projects would receive funding involved, “a team of career employees who are technical experts in facility management, construction, budget, and related fields spent several weeks conducting an intensive and detailed review of the proposed project lists across all Interior bureaus,” according to the DOI. The team based their decisions on which projects would best reduce the maintenance backlogs while also prioritizing the needs of Americans.