published Saturday, October 12th, 2013

Travelers shift to state parks because of federal shutdown

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    Tim Bruns looks at the canyon as he and Sarah Arms pause at the overlook at Cloudland Canyon State Park with a dog named Jager.
    Photo by John Rawlston.
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    Susan Brinn and her son, Cooper, both visiting from Nashville, examine a sign that reads "Because of the federal government shutdown, all national parks are closed." on the locked gate to Point Park on Friday in Lookout Mountain, Tenn.
    Photo by Maura Friedman.
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A notice at the top of Alabama State Parks' online homepage says it all:

"State Parks are not closed by Shutdown."

As the federal government's shutdown enters its second week and states weigh potential options for running national parks themselves to stave off tourism losses, state park officials in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama are targeting the wandering travelers who can't land at a national park.

All three states, along with states all over the country, are pitching their own attractions as alternatives in the midst of the federal government's partial shutdown and fall foliage season.

Relatively recent Harrison, Tenn., resident Jeremy Roberts, 29; his wife, Charity, 30; and 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Autumn, were forced to look for alternatives to a visit to the Smokies and wound up landing almost within sight of home.

"My parents had already purchased plane tickets with plans for us to go to Smoky Mountains National Park," said Roberts, who moved here with his family about a year and a half ago from Dallas. "Now, we're going to visit Harrison Bay State Park instead," he said, noting the family intends to stay at the park a couple of days and eat locally.

He expects his parents to be a little disappointed their son's house is only a couple of miles away.

"My dad is bringing his golf clubs, and we were going to golf in Townsend," he said. Instead they will play rounds at Bear Trace at Harrison Bay.

On the other hand, if the shutdown ends or the parks are reopened before his parents arrive Monday, Roberts says he'll return to his original plans.

State parks officials in the region are looking for Roberts and his fellow thwarted travelers.

In Tennessee, Department of Environment and Conservation officials said state parks are reporting increased numbers in visitors and campers and parks folks are seeking out more.

"We have posted on our social media pages that all 54 Tennessee State Parks are open, as we have received questions from many people who thought state parks were also closed," Tennessee State Parks spokeswoman Shannon Ashford said.

Deputy Commissioner of Parks and Conservation Brock Hill said Friday that the state parks online registration has been extremely busy. Park offices are fielding lots of calls from people checking to see if they're open.

Since the online registration service is new in Tennessee, figures can't be compared to previous years. But Hill said Sept. 30 was the third busiest day this year, second only to July 3 and the day before Labor Day.

Hill believes that could indicate a swing from federal to state parks, since interest appears to be peaking like it does before a major travel holiday. He said Harrison Bay in the Chattanooga area is experiencing an increase, and the same goes for Roane Mountain State Park and Panther Creek State Park near Morristown a little farther away.

Ooltewah resident Sharon Bookout said she, her husband, adult children and grandson were planning on a few nights in the Cherokee National Forest, but the shutdown shuttered those plans.

"We have prepaid reservations for next week at the Indian Boundary Campground in the Cherokee National Forest," Bookout said. The family won't be just as happy with the switch, she said.

"Indian Boundary is special for us and we've been going for years in the fall," she said.

The Bookouts might end up vacationing with the Robertses.

"We plan to try to go to Harrison Bay or Chester Frost if the government shutdown continues," Bookout said. "We will stay a few nights."

And in Alabama, state officials are trying to "clear up any confusion."

"Alabama State Parks are open for business. We were not affected by the federal government shutdown. We welcome anyone that cannot access a National Park. This closure will also affect other facilities such as National Wildlife Refuges and National Forests," reads Alabama's notice to travelers on its parks website.

Josh Hughes is the assistant superintendent at DeSoto State Park in Fort Payne, Ala., where rooms were already booked solid before the shutdown happened.

Hughes said it's "hard to tell" if the shutdown has had an impact on attendance, but the park is getting inquiries.

"October is generally our busiest month, but it seems that we've had an increase in phone calls from people looking for a place to stay," he said.

In Georgia, state parks spokeswoman Mary Huff said the Peach State is seeing increased activity, too.

"Not only does the shutdown of the national parks affect visitation at Georgia state parks, but also campers and visitors have been displaced from Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds in Georgia," Huff said.

Fort Mountain State Park near Chatsworth is getting lots of phone calls and "seeing increases in day-use visitation and retail sales from the shutdown," Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites Manager Joe Yeager said.

Officials at Cloudland Canyon State Park on Lookout Mountain near Rising Fawn said the park is so busy it's hard to tell what impact the federal shutdown has had, but they believe it has created at least some increase in visitation, Huff said.

And at James H. Floyd State Park in Summerville, officials have seen significant increases from accommodating displaced campers from other federal campgrounds, she said.

Georgia officials say the only affected state park is S.C. Foster State Park, in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. That park's campground and cabins remain open, but visitors cannot boat into the swamp or hike nature trails.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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