PROTECTING THE GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS

Tennessee is fortunate to be the home of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, often referred to as the crown jewel of the national park system. The Smokies cover over half a million acres and host an astounding variety of plant and animal species. The natural beauty of these mountains and the abundance of recreational opportunities also make the Smokies the nation's most visited national park. Each year the Smokies welcome more visitors than the Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Parks combined.

As a result, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is arguably the nation's most threatened national park. Due to the high number of visitors it receives each year, the Smokies are suffering from extraordinary wear and tear. In addition, air quality problems have landed it on the National Parks Conservation Association's list of the ten most endangered parks in the country for each of the past three years. Most shocking to me is that, according to park officials, air quality in the Smokies is so poor during the summer months that hiking on backcountry trails is more hazardous to your health than walking along the streets of Manhattan.

As chairman of the Great Smoky Mountains Congressional Caucus, I have made addressing the needs of the Smokies a top priority. Too often, the budget debate in Washington focuses on short term needs rather than on long term infrastructure deficiencies such as the neglect of our national park system. I believe the federal government has a fundamental responsibility to ensure the protection of our national parks for future generations to enjoy. I have called on President Bush to help us address these concerns, and I am encouraged by his commitment to help eliminate the National Park Service's maintenance and repair backlog, as well as to address air quality problems in our national parks.

Traffic congestion is contributing to the air quality problems in the Smokies, detracting from the enjoyment of those who visit, and threatening public access. Accordingly, I have cosponsored the Transit in Parks Act, legislation designed to help the Smokies and surrounding communities deal with growing regional transportation problems threatening the park's future. The legislation would create a federal transit program, administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation, and provide $65 million each year for the next six years to develop alternative transportation systems such as light rail, alternative fuel buses, and bicycle and pedestrian pathways. It encourages national parks to work with states and local communities to address these problems and provides federal funding to help implement meaningful solutions.

I am pleased that the Senate Appropriations Committee recently approved $4.7 million to construct a new science research center and laboratory in the park. This facility is part of a national effort to better understand and preserve natural resources and biologically diverse ecosystems, as well as to provide researchers and students with new opportunities to learn more about conservation efforts and threats to our national parks. In addition, $375,000 has been approved by the committee for restoration and repair of 77 pioneer log cabins and more than 100 historic structures throughout the park.

I am hopeful the full Senate will move quickly to approve this funding. We have also requested $300,000 in federal funds to be used in ongoing efforts to monitor ground-level ozone and other air pollutants in the Smokies as part of the East Tennessee Ozone Study.

The popularity of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has placed a significant burden on its infrastructure and services. However, I am confident that we are taking important steps toward preserving this national treasure for our children, grandchildren, and the generations to come.