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Lamar Alexander: Passing the most important Conservation Legislation for our National Parks in Half a Century

U.S. SenateWashington D.C. – England has its history. Italy has its art. Egypt has its pyramids. But, the United States of America has the great American outdoors. This week, the U.S. Senate passed legislation that will be the biggest help to our national parks, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in half a century.

The U.S. Department of Energy awarded $20 million to the new Oak Ridge Institute at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville to expand the university’s partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to train the next generation of American scientists and engineers.

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

The U.S. Supreme Court released a decision that will provide temporary relief to current DACA recipients – children who were brought to the U.S. illegally, but by no fault of their own. 

believe it is up to Congress to fix our broken immigration system – that means achieving a permanent result both for DACA recipients and for increasing border security.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced the Tennessee Department of Transportation is receiving a $11.2 million grant to install 143 miles of fiber optic cable along I-40 from Memphis to Nashville. This grant will help provide drivers with real time road conditions and expand broadband access to distressed counties along I-40.

Passing the most important conservation legislation for our national parks – including the Smokies – in half a century

This week, the U.S. Senate passed the Great American Outdoors Act – the most important conservation and outdoor recreation legislation in the last half century. Today, too many of our national parks are in bad shape, and American families visiting those parks are often shocked to find that so many of the roads, picnic areas, trails, campgrounds and visitor centers are in such bad condition or even closed.

This bipartisan bill will cut in half the $12 billion maintenance backlog in our national parks, including $224 million in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It will also reduce maintenance backlogs at our national forests and refuges.

Here is what this means for Tennessee – it means that places like the beautiful Look Rock Campground in the Smokies, which has been closed for several years because the sewage system doesn’t work, will have the resources needed to reopen so the 5,000 families who camp there each year can continue to enjoy it.

And the Cherokee National Forest in East Tennessee, which suffers from a $27 million deferred maintenance backlog and welcomes more visitors each year than most of the western national parks, will have its roads and trails restored. And then in West Tennessee, the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge, which has about $8 million of maintenance work that needs to be done on boat ramps and boat docks, will receive the support it needs as well.

This bill will also fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), an unrealized goal of Congress and the conservation community since 1964. Fully funding the LWCF was also a recommendation of President Reagan’s Commission on Americans Outdoors, which I chaired in 1985.

None of this would be possible without the strong support of President Donald Trump and so many Democrat and Republican senators. In the midst of all the bad things that are going on today, this is a good thing, and sends a strong signal to the American people that Congress can come together to do important work. I hope Congress can send this bill to the president’s desk soon so future generations can continue to enjoy our national parks and public lands.


$20 million federal grant for Oak Ridge Institute at UT Knoxville will help train the next generation of American scientists and engineers

This was an exciting week for the University of Tennessee-Knoxville (UT), the U.S. Department of Energy and our state. On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded $20 million to the new Oak Ridge Institute at the University of Tennessee to expand the university’s partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to help train the next generation of American scientists and engineers.

One of the joys of my public life has been to see and encourage the partnership between the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory from the vantage point of governor, president of the University of Tennessee, and now as chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, which sent about $4 billion in federal money to Oak Ridge last year.

As chairman of this subcommittee, I included $20 million in last year’s spending bill to promote workforce development and prepare the next generation of American scientists and engineers – which was competitively awarded to the Oak Ridge Institute. 

The Oak Ridge Institute will be a pipeline for a new supply of American-trained scientists and engineers, which our country sorely needs in this competitive world. It will also combine the resources and experience of the nation’s largest science and energy laboratory and a major research university. With such a strong foundation and current leadership, I am betting that the Oak Ridge Corridor brand and the Oak Ridge Institute will be recognized as one of the most important science and engineering alliances in the world.

Supporting police reform legislation in the U.S. Senate

I was proud to cosponsor South Carolina Senator Tim Scott’s legislation to help states reform our country’s police departments by holding police officers accountable, identifying and encouraging the adoption and use of best practices in community policing, and providing better training to police officers. 

Senator Scott is the right person to lead on this important issue due to his personal experiences and his ability to bring people together. 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 – although this legislation will definitely help. It will also take changing behavior.


#TennesseeStrong – Tennesseans fighting back against COVID-19 Coronavirus

These are trying times, but through the difficulty that has come out of the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic, there have also been inspiring stories of Tennesseans volunteering their time and effort to help their communities when they need it the most. Here are just a few recent stories of Tennesseans showing their Volunteer Spirit:

  • A seven-year-old artist from Clinton, Tennessee, is doing his part to help others during the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic. When he heard that Italy was having such a hard time with the COVID-19 virus, he began to draw comic books and sell copies to raise money to send to nursing homes in Asiago, Italy. He ended up raising $1,200 by selling his comic books. His friends in Italy were so impressed, they decided to make him an honorary citizen.
  • A 12-year-old from Arlington, Tennessee, wanted to make a difference in his community, so he decided to start an annual food drive that raised over $3,000 in food and cash donations in its first year. This year, his food drive raised over $2,500 in just one week. He said, “I want to help out other people over the summer because children need food when they are not in school.”          

Working to support Telehealth

On Wednesday, I held a hearing in the Senate health committee I chair, which featured testimony from telehealth experts about what we can learn from increased use of telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic, and which temporary policies that provide flexibility for patients using telehealth should be extended. I was especially happy to have Dr. Andrea Willis of Chattanooga as a witness. Dr. Willis serves as Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee, which is the first major insurance company to permanently cover telehealth visits.

As dark as this pandemic has been, it has created an opportunity to learn from and act upon these three months of intensive telehealth experiences, specifically what permanent changes need to be made in federal and state policies. In 2016, there were almost 884 million visits nationwide between patients and physicians, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

If 15-20 percent of those were to become remote permanently due to telehealth expansion during COVID-19 Coronavirus – that would produce a massive change in our health care system. Part of this explosion in remote meetings between patients and physicians has been made possible by temporary changes in federal and state policies. The private sector, too, has made important changes.

One purpose of the hearing was to find out which of these temporary changes in federal policy should be maintained, modified, or reversed—and also to find out if there are any additional federal policies that would help patients and health care providers take advantage of delivering medical services using telehealth. I also spoke about this on the Senate floor, and you can watch here


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