U.S. Secretary of the Interior visits Great Smoky Mountains National Park

GATLINBURG (WATE) – U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke stopped in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Friday to celebrate the 101st anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service.

“As a former Seal commander, there’s two things that our government needs to fun: our military and our parks,” Zinke said.

In his first visit to the park as secretary, he expressed the need for more funding of our national parks.

“We’re looking at prioritizing and delivering more money on the front line where I think it belongs, more money for our rangers,” Zinke said. “We’re too short in the field. We’ve been regionalized, so our rangers are feeling like they don’t have the right resources, the right manpower, the right funding on the front line, as well as the park system as a whole, we need to catch up and reinvest in our greatest treasures.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander joined the secretary on his trip to Tennessee, pledging his support for future national park legislation.

“Eighty percent of our deferred maintenance in the Smoky Mountains, more than $200 million dollars has to do with roads and structures, and he’s thinking big about how to get additional funds in to help not just that but to build other structures around the country in the national parks,” Sen. Alexander said. “We’ve talked about that extensively and if he and the president propose that, I’m going to be their biggest cheerleader.”

Zinke also took the opportunity to address the Gatlinburg wildfires, saying he is currently looking over the Chimney Tops 2 review. He acknowledge that there are areas of improvement in terms of the response to the disaster.

“Some of our communication systems were not compatible, so there’s a lot of lessons learned,” Zinke said. “A lot of people tried to do the right thing, and unfortunately, a lot of loss of life and loss of 2,500 structures. There’s a lot of things we will get better at and hopefully we put in place the right procedures, so that it’s never repeated.”

Zinke said he hopes the findings from the review will improve communications between agencies moving forward. He also hopes it will lead to removing dead timbers from the park, creating more space between the park and the town, and improve training for agencies who are not as experienced with fires and other disasters.

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