As the federal government remains partially shutdown for a third week, volunteers and nonprofits are stepping up to keep parks clean.
You’ve probably seen a Friends of the Smokies license plate on the back of a car. Funds from those plates help make up the $1.5 million the organization gives to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park each year. But sometimes the need goes beyond those regular funds.
North Carolina Director of Friends of the Smokies Anna Zanetti says they’ll use $18,000 in rainy day funds right now to keep open bathrooms open in the park:
“It’s our duty to step up when they are in need and when they need help,” says Zanetti. “When our superintendent calls us and says we need to keep these bathrooms open to provide for our visitors and folks who are there to enjoy the park, then we are there to provide for them and so that’s what we did.”
Starting this weekend five maintenance workers will keep the bathrooms at Newfound Gap and Cades Cove clean and open through Jan 21st.
The Friends of the Smokies works closely with the Park but Zanetti says that’s hard to do when even essential employees are allowed to answer their phones or emails.
“Well we are not allowed to truly work with them at this point, the park service rangers that I rely on heavily for grant applications are not able to work with me at this point so all of those project are on hold until the government shutdown is lifted,” explains Zanetti.
Although Friends of the Smokies works specifically with the Park, Zanetti wants to remind everyone that the National Forests are also impacted by the partial government shutdown.
The difference between the National Forest Service and the National Park Service can be confusing. Zanetti simply explains it this way:
The U.S. Forest Service is under the umbrella of the Department of Agriculture while the National Park Service is under the umbrella of the Department of Interior - both are impacted by the shutdown.
The U.S. Forest Service manages more than 232 million acres with the mission "to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation's forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.” Meanwhile, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the 417 units of the National Park System administered by the U.S. Department of Interior. The National Park Service “preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations."
While national parks are open, Zanetti doesn’t advise visitors to go to them while they’re unmanaged.
“We do not encourage folks to go in there currently - just as liability,” says Zanetti. “If you do go into the park we ask that you practice ‘leave no trace’ policies and clean up after yourself to leave the park the way that you found it or better.”
According to Friend of the Smokies, there are more than 24,000 federal park service employees nationwide - but only 326 are working right now in the Southeast.
Friends of the Smokies is a sponsor of Blue Ridge Public Radio.