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U.S. Senate considering legislation to cut in half the $224 million maintenance backlog at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

U.S. SenateWashington, D.C. – Last week, the United States Senate is considering the most important conservation legislation that we’ve had in half a century, the Great American Outdoors Act.

The legislation has the strong support of President Donald Trump, the last six Secretaries of the Interior, over 800 sportsmen and conservation groups, and 60 senators — Democrats and Republicans — who are working together in a remarkable way. It will do more for our public lands than any piece of legislation we have passed in at least 50 years.

U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander
U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander

Here is how this bill will help the Smokies: the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has $224 million dollars of deferred maintenance and an annual budget of about $20 million a year.

So you don’t have to have gone too far in mathematics in the Maryville public school system to understand that it would probably never be able to get rid of the deferred maintenance in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park without a bill like this.

Now that’s a massive disappointment to people who consider our national parks as our greatest treasures – who go to our parks and find a campground closed, a bathroom not working, a bridge that’s closed, a road with potholes, a trail that’s worn out or a visitor center that could be dilapidated.   

The Great American Outdoors Act includes legislation I introduced, the Restore Our Parks Act, which will help restore our 419 national parks – from the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the Grand Canyon to Yosemite National Park – by cutting in half that maintenance backlog over the next five years.

Another important part of the Great American Outdoors Act is that it fully funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) permanently. The LWCF’s goal is to take an environmental burden – drilling on federal lands – and turn it into an environmental benefit by supporting state and federal conservation programs. The LWCF has played a large role in protecting the outdoors. In our state, the LWCF has provided about $221.4 million for conservation and outdoor recreation efforts since the 1960s. 

I hope we in the Senate have great success with this bill. I know that the people of Tennessee are looking forward to it.

Changing discrimination requires changing behavior, not just laws

Benjamin Hooks, the former NAACP president from Memphis, said that “America is a work in progress. We’ve come a long way, and we have a long way to go.” That long way to go will not be as easy as passing laws. It will take changing behavior. One way to do that could be last week’s peaceful protest organized by Nashville teenagers, which was a textbook example of First Amendment citizenship.

And it hopefully will encourage more victims of racism to tell their stories and more Americans to adjust our attitudes. And perhaps a good first step to changing attitudes toward racial discrimination would be for each of us who are white to ask ourselves this question: How would I feel if police in my hometown repeatedly stopped me for being a white man or a white woman in the wrong place, especially if most of the people in the town were black? I spoke about this issue on the floor of the United States Senate last week. You can listen to me thoughts here.


Using what we learned from COVID-19 to prepare for future pandemics

Last week, I released a white paper with a foreword by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist outlining five categories of recommendations to address future pandemics based on lessons learned from COVID-19 and the past 20 years of pandemic planning.

In this internet age, attention spans are short. Even with an event as significant as COVID-19 Coronavirus, memories fade and attention moves quickly to the next crisis. That makes it imperative that Congress act on needed changes this year in order to better prepare for the next pandemic.

The purpose of the white paper is to solicit feedback that Congress can consider and act on this year. I am inviting comments on my initial recommendations, responses to the questions posed in the white paper, and any additional recommendations for the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions I chair to consider. This feedback will be shared with my colleagues, both Democrat and Republican.  

Exploring how to return our country’s 56 million K-12 students to school safely in the fall

Last week I chaired a Senate education committee hearing to examine how our country’s 56 million students – from kindergarten to 12th grade – will return in the fall to our 100,000 public schools and 34,000 private schools as safely as possible, giving our country its surest step toward normalcy.

A May 28th story in the Memphis Commercial Appeal about schools planning for the 2020-2021 school year included a bittersweet image — a young girl reaching her hand out to touch a teacher, who is standing in line to welcome students to the first day of school in 2019. As the Commercial Appeal reporter writes: “The first day of school in August 2019 would flunk 2020’s course on social distancing.” The question for governors, school districts, teachers and parents is not whether schools should reopen – but how.



Any teacher can explain the risk of emotional, intellectual and social damage if a child misses a school year. Schools need to assess how this year’s disruption has affected our children and get student learning back on track.

Today 91.3 percent of families with children have at least one parent employed, and among married families with children, 64.2 percent had both parents employed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And many children live in environments where the school is the safest place they’ll be all day.

It’s also the place where almost 30 million students receive a school lunch — more than 70 percent of those students qualify for free or reduced-priced meals. Administrators have a responsibility to make our schools among the safest small communities this fall. In doing so, they will help our country take its surest step toward normalcy. 


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