Smoky Mountains National Park to reopen over weekend

WASHINGTON (AP) — When the Great Smoky Mountains National Park becomes one of the country’s first national parks to reopen Saturday, some of its most popular trails will remain off limits.

Major roadways, most trails and some restroom facilities will be accessible, but it’s unclear when the Laurel Falls, Chimney Tops and Alum Cave trails will reopen, park spokeswoman Dana Soehn said. She said safety will be stressed as officials seek to follow federal and state guidelines to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“We think that access to the three most heavily used trails just simply wouldn’t be possible with CDC social distancing guidelines,” Soehn said.

The push to restore access to some of the country’s most treasured spaces comes six weeks after the park abruptly shut its gates when visitors weren’t following social distancing guidelines.

On the Tennessee-North Carolina border, the Great Smoky Mountains is the nation’s most visited national park. It closed on March 24 as part of a fragmented federal approach that gives individual parks wide latitude to tailor closures to varying circumstances. The park service said about 30,000 people had entered the park each day the previous week and some popular sites were congested.

The reopening was announced after making sure the park was aligned with federal, state and local authorities and had enough personal protective gear for employees, Soehn said.

“We are going to be restoring access to the park in phases that allow us to try to honor the access to parks while also protecting the health and safety of our employees who manage the operations,” she said.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt tweeted photos Wednesday of himself meeting with park workers to herald Saturday’s reopening.

“Please social distance,” Bernhardt said, although neither Bernhardt nor park staff wore face masks in the photos, as they talked and walked inches apart Tuesday.

Bernhardt was consulting with state governors and with law officers, maintenance workers and others at individual parks, under federal guidelines, to restore public access to the parks “as rapidly as possible,” he said in a video in one of the tweets.

Most national parks remain closed, though Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park in Utah and the Everglades National Park in Florida have also announced phased reopenings. Federal authorities have yet to publicly announce timelines for other closed parks to reopen.

The parks are among the earliest federal operations to reopen to the public.

President Donald Trump singled out national parks in an Earth Day ceremony in late April, saying the parks and other public lands soon would be opening their gates again in a sign of “significant progress against the invisible enemy” of the pandemic. The outbreak has devastated the U.S. economy, and Trump, facing presidential elections in six months, has urged as rapid a return of the U.S. workforce as possible even as coronavirus cases climb.

The National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit group advocating on park service policy, has “major concerns” about the first partial reopenings underway, spokeswoman Angela Gonzalez said Thursday.

“It remains unclear whether staff at these sites will have enough personal protective equipment to stay safe, or any new signage or barriers to aid in physical distancing efforts,” Gonzalez said.

Some management-level staffers in the national park system have privately expressed alarm that they haven’t had enough guidance on what federal funds they can use to buy face masks and other protective gear for park staff, said Kristen Brengel, a senior vice president of the group.

“If you’re going to reopen parks and bring park workers back to interact with the public, this has to be one of the first things you take care of,” Brengel said.

The National Park Service said in a statement Thursday that it would provide personal protective equipment for park workers and enforce social distancing rules and other safety measures in accordance with federal guidelines.

“The health and safety of those who visit and work in national parks continues to be paramount, which is why we ask visitors to be our partner in adopting social distancing practices,” the statement said.

At the Smokies, rangers will be out monitoring roads and emergency situations, but won’t be specifically monitoring people.

“We don’t intend to be the social distancing police on trails,” Soehn said.

She said the park has enough personal protective equipment for all employees for the first phase of the reopening and an adaptable operations plan that can be modified if circumstances call for it.

The first phase restrictions are expected to last at least two weeks. After that, officials will assess and decide whether to move forward with phase two, which would include reopening secondary roads and campgrounds. A full reopening would come after that.

“We’re hoping people will safely visit in a manner that allows us to keep our employees safe,” Soehn said.


Yonker reported from Louisville, Kentucky.

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