By LAURA HALM
6 News Reporter
GATLINBURG (WATE) – Great Smoky Mountain National Park park rangers say criminals are taking advantage of the federal government shutdown.
Rangers tell 6 News they are dealing with trespassing, vandalism and theft attempts as most of the park remains closed.
Chief Ranger Clay Jordan says two attempts to vandalize and steal donation boxes at the Newfound Gap parking lot were reported. The gates at Clingman’s Dome Road and Cherokee Orchard Road were also damaged.
No money was taken, but the vandalism was a hit to the organizations that help the park by paying for trail repairs and educational programs.
“It’s criminals who are trying to take advantage of an opportunity, figuring that there’s a little less presence in the park of staff. The park is dependent on these organizations,” said Jordan.
One box belongs to Friends of the Smokies. Officials say most of the money had been retrieved from the donation site before the shutdown, but the damage to the box will cost more than $3,000 to repair.
A donation box owned by Great Smoky Mountains Association was another target Saturday night.
“They’re custom, one-of-a-kind,” said Terry Maddox, executive director of the Great Smoky Mountains Association. “The particular box at Clingman’s Dome will cost us about $2,000 to replace it.”
The break-ins could not have come at a worse time.
“We’re already under stress and having problems. Someone is taking advantage of that situation for probably very little money,” added Maddox.
Even though a skeleton crew is working at the park, rangers say they are ramping up security.
“We’re focusing them on the protection of visitors within the Newfound Gap Road, Highway 441 over the mountain, which is open to the public, and to the protection of park property and resources around the park,” added Chief Ranger Jordan.
Maddox says he has alerted rangers to check donation boxes throughout the park.
“They have had pretty good success in figuring these things out and bringing someone to justice,” said Maddox.
Anyone with information is asked to call park headquarters at (865) 436-1294.
It is a violation to be found in closed areas of the park, which means you could be fined if caught.
Park rangers also warn they are keeping a close eye for any animal poaching during the shutdown.
All national park visitor centers, picnic areas, campgrounds, trails and roads are closed except Newfound Gap Road, the Spur and the Gatlinburg bypass.